The Monocarpic Meconopsis

Blue Poppy BudI bought a plant at a local grocery store last fall. It was labelled “Meconopsis betonicifolia”. The label included a photo of a beautiful blue poppy. I had tried, as many people have, to grow the Tibetan blue poppy, but without success. However, the plant was available, it looked healthy and the price was right. I took it home, planted it in a sheltered spot with only a bit of sun from the west in deep, moist soil. Then I pretty much forgot about it.

This spring, much to my surprise, the plant came back! It grew and grew, produced buds and then flowers. Beautiful blue flowers! I felt so smug. The elusive Tibetan blue poppy was mine!

Entire PlantReally, it was not through any effort or skill on my part. I was lucky to buy a healthy plant and lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest. The right situation is all-important for the cultivation of this plant.

And the plant is a perennial, right? It is blooming in my garden this year, and it will bloom next year and the year after that.

A dear friend, after admiring my plant in full bloom, just had to have one of her own. We went to a local nursery where we were pleased to find two Meconopsis betonicifolia plants for sale. My friend bought both of them, one of them already in flower. The flower was not quite the same intense blue as my plant’s flowers: it was more of a faded violet, but we didn’t worry much about that. Perhaps the bloom was merely a little past its prime. Just as we were leaving, the nursery-person said to us, “You must remove the seed heads before they open; otherwise, the plant will not come back next year”.

Could this be true? It didn’t sound right to me, and as soon as I returned home, I began to research the subject, furiously turning pages both electronic and paper. My best sources were A – Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, Canadian Edition, Christoper Brickell, Editor in Chief (EGP) and The Meconopsis Group website (TMG). This is what I found:

  • The Tibetan blue poppy has been known for decades as M. betonicifolia. As the result of a recent reassessment, the well-known taxonomist, Christopher Grey-Wilson has changed the name of this widely grown plant. He has proposed (2009) re-establishing the plant under the name it was first described, i.e. M. baileyi  (TMG).
  • The faded violet colour of my friend’s plant was likely caused by too much exposure to sun, or possibly because of the soil.
  • Some species of Meconopsis are monocarpic. Monocarpic plants are those that flower, set seeds and then die. Other terms with the same meaning are hapaxanth and semelparous.
  • Is my plant monocarpic? The experts differ on the answer to this question:
    • “Short-lived perennials, e.g. M. betonicifolia, are less likely to be monocarpic in moist conditions, and if flowering is prevented until several crowns have been formed” (EGP). Uh-oh, too late for that.
    • M. baileyi is frequently stated to be monocarpic or a short lived
      perennial. The reason for lack of longevity seems to be cultural
      rather than inherent. Hotter, drier climates. . .are acknowledged to be difficult ones for growing this species. It will not readily survive more than one season in areas with such a climate. . .M. baileyi thrives with little difficulty in
      rich, well cultivated soils with plenty of added organic matter in
      cooler and damper climates such as central Scotland. Specimens
      of more than 20 years of age are growing in the garden of the
      present author and such longevity is not uncommon in the
      Scottish climate.” (TMG). Okay, that’s better.
  • Contrary to the nursery-person’s advice, the best strategy for growing blue poppies in the garden year after year is to collect the seeds and plant them in pots in January.

Gardening is ever and always a risky business. Plants are lost every year, and some years are worse than others. I’ll let you know whether my lovely Tibetan blue poppy lives to bloom another year.

"Tibetan Blue Poppy", watercolour, pen & ink, 6"x 8"

“Tibetan Blue Poppy”, watercolour, pen & ink, 6″x 8″


30 thoughts on “The Monocarpic Meconopsis

  1. Pingback: Meconopsis cambrica | the painting gardener

  2. This is a lovely painting, so unusual. Plants are wonderful so good luck with yours. Check out Bill Terry in Vancouver for some advice on growing. New book due out October by Kit Grey Wilson and RHS KEW, a Meconopsis monograph. Fabric design could be another string to your bow. Try getting some seeds of Meconopsis Lingholm, an amazing deeper blue than Meconopsis Baileyii Regards Sharon Bradley Botanical Artist, Tutor, Illustrator and Meconopsis group committee member.


    • Thank you for your kind comment. I will definitely check out the information you have provided. I’ve read up on Meconopsis Lingholm and will be looking out for seeds or plants.

      I see from your lovely website that you tutor Botanical Illustration at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh! I have travelled to Edinburgh several times and always make it a point to visit the Botanic Gardens. Do you know the title of Kit Grey Wilson’s book and if it will be available from RHS KEW or?


      • Hi Mrs D Yes the book is very pricey. We have Kit Grey Wilson coming to do a talk at the Meconopsis group meeting on October 25th so we are hoping the book will be out by then, We are also trying to negotiate a discount for the the group members. I think the Alpine Garden Society has also approached him to distribute the book and get a discount. Amazon are listing it for pre order a bit lower priced but still expensive. Typical cost of a Kew production mind you. Perhaps encourage your local library to get a copy in. Look me up if coming to Edinburgh.




    • I’m so glad you like the painting. The cultivation of the blue poppy is still a mystery to me, but I’ll let you know if I figure it out. It’s funny how some poppies grow like weeds and others are terribly finicky.


  3. You really never know what a plant will do in your garden until you try it. How fun to have something from the market thrive – a rare thing – that you have the perfect spot for! That’s a bit of serendipity. In the work that you feature here, I feel struggle. The top feels hopeful, the bottom feels doomed.


    • Your hopeful/doomed observation is very interesting. I see it now that you point it out, but it wasn’t intentional on my part. My admiration for the blue poppy is whole-hearted, but will it still be here tomorrow?


  4. I love your painting. I adore blue poppies but don’ t we all? I can’ t grow them here it is too dry. Yours is a beauty, you lucky girl. Such an amazing blue. Good luck with it. I hope you will get a whole pool of them in a few years, or rather a lake.


  5. Beautiful painting, Mrs Daffodil. And the poppy in the photo is extraordinary. I didn’t know there were such things as blue poppies. I think I had a fairytale book as a child that featured a mythical blue flower. Must have been it.

    There’s something about the word monocarpic that’s disturbing.


    • Yes, I was disturbed by the word, too. It’s sort of like monotonous. And “carpic”, like “carpe diem” (sieze the day), only it’s the opposite: “live monotonously”. Not good.

      Your childhood fairytale book sounds wonderful.


  6. Thanks for that! I too have spent a small fortune on trying to grow the elusive blue poppy, in a variety of micro-climates, different soils, with certain other possible symbiotic companions, etc….with little success. I’ve researched, studied, reflected and…succumbed again and again to the allure of yet another healthy looking specimen. Meanwhile my sister in Edmonton throws one in a raised bed, on a slope, half and half sun/shade, with other poppies/daisies/peonies and bulbs in proximity and has them come back for five years….the Devonian Garden in Edmonton also has an established plot of all blue flowering plants (semi-shade, moist rich soil on a slope, near birches–one of the suspected symbiotic companions) and I’ve yet to get them through a second season. I’ve stopped short of going to Tibet and running soil tests…..monocarpic, huh?
    Please provide an update next spring; will be watching for it. Fingers crossed for you.


    • I never would have suspected Edmonton would be the perfect place to grow blue poppies. And I didn’t know about birches as a symbiotic companion. It’s fascinating information. Thanks for your comment, and I will definitely provide an update on my blue poppy (or maybe poppies!) next spring.


  7. I wish you many years of blue poppy returning!!! They are fascinating – you captured their allure so beautifully in the painting.
    One year I bought one just so I can take a million pictures (I knew I don’t have the proper place for it…). There is a bit of confusion of what’s monocarpic and what not. It’s best though not to have too many flowers to go to seed, so the plant won’t waste all its resources on setting seeds (what is called ‘flowering themselves to death’). I do it with many other plants that start flowering in their first or second year (I leave 1-2 flowers to form seeds and I remove the others, soon after they flower).


  8. I’m so thrilled for you and your beautiful blue poppy! Your painting is wonderful. Even if the plant doesn’t come up next year, you will always have your painting. The description of their habits was very exciting. The weather in the Pacific Northwest is kind to many varieties. Our garden while living up there was filled with beautiful rhodies, which don’t seem to like this climate, though camellias do quite well. We cultivate what we can.


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