Mm. integrafolia, punicea, sino-maculata in Qinghai

Brief Introduction to the Genus

Perhaps surprisingly, many people are unfamiliar with the genus Meconopsis, and may never have heard of it. The purpose here is to introduce various pertinent aspects of this lovely genus. These are discussed under (linked) sections:

  1. Defining the genus Meconopsis within the family Papaveraceae

  2. Distribution of the species in the wild

  3. Variability within the genus

  4. Big perennial blue Himalayan poppies

1. Defining the genus
Meconopsis is a genus within the poppy family, Papaveraceae. These plants are commonly, but misleadingly, often called Himalayan blue poppies – misleading mainly because many are not blue and they are not all from the Himalayas. The poppies best known to gardeners are probably the true poppies, i.e. the genus Papaver. Whilst there are a large number of species (about 70), unlike in Meconopsis, none of them is blue. Probably those most familiar include:
(i) the diaphanous annual, P. rhoeas, (the red-flowered corn or Flander’s poppy, once, before the abundant use of herbicides, so common on arable land), and its garden selections, e.g. Shirley poppies;
(ii) another annual species, P. somniferum, the opium poppy in its various garden forms, including sumptuous paeony-flowered forms;
(iii) the robust perennial oriental poppies, P. orientale and P. bracteatum, also occurring in numerous garden forms, and
(iv) for the rock gardener, the short-lived perennial P. alpinum, together with other similar dainty, small species.

Papaver rhoeas (Flander's poppy)

Meconopsis pseudointegrifolia
Dashing La, S.E. Tibet

The flowers of the true poppies, Papaver, and of Meconopsis are very similar in structure. In both, the flower parts are all separate from each other. There are two sepals which protect the flower when in bud and these drop off very soon after the bud opens. There are usually 4 petals (sometimes more, many more in the case of the double forms of Papaver). These are regular in shape, silky and delicate-looking, crumpled when within the bud and then straightening out after opening. There are numerous stamens, the anthers on slender free filaments and these surround a large ovary.

Papaver flower
Meconopsis flower

M.punicea bud opening

M. 'Houndwood'
bud opening

Important and readily appreciated differences between Papaver and Meconopsis concern the ovary, style and stigma (pistil) in the centre of the flower. In Papaver the ovary is surmounted by a stigma which is expanded into a wide stigmatic disc: a style is absent. The ovary develops into a fruit-capsule filled with seeds and these are released when ripe, rather as from a pepper-pot, through a ring of pores which open at the top of the ovary and below the stigmatic disc. In Meconopsis the ovary is surmounted first by a style and then by a stigma that does not take the form of a wide stigmatic disc. The seeds are not distributed from pores, but instead from valves which split vertically for a short distance at the distal end of the sutures of the fused carpels which make up the ovary (see “Poppies” by Chris Grey-Wilson for further botanical details and for information on other genera in the family)

Papaver somniferum
Meconopsis fruit-capsule

Apart from Meconopsis, other less familiar genera in the Papaveraceae are Sanguinaria (blood-root), Eschscholzia (Californian poppies), Macleaya (plume poppies), Hylomecon japonicum, Romneya (Californian tree poppies), Glaucium (horned poppies) and Stylophorum (celandine poppies). A species heretofore at times included in Meconopsis is Cathcartia villosa, also still known as M. villosa.

Sanguinaria canadensis

Cathcartia villosa
syn. M. villosa

          Papaver alpinum

Double Papaver somniferum

Romneya coulteri

2. Distribution of species in the wild
The genus Meconopsis does not have a satisfactory common English name, the one most usually used being “Himalayan blue poppies”. This reflects in large degree where they come from and also the colour of the flowers of many of the species and hybrids. The genus comprises a race of mountain plants, a few species growing at the highest altitudes of any flowering plants in the world (e.g. high altitude forms of M. horridula): others occur at lower, but nonetheless montane altitudes. However, although they are distributed along the Himalayan range, many species also occur in the mountains of western China and the high plateaux of Tibet. There are 45-50 known species and they are all (with one European exception) native to these Asian regions. Arguably the most popular of the Meconopsis grown in gardens have blue flowers, but other colours are well represented, e.g. the striking red of M. punicea and a number of species such as M. pseudointegrifolia are yellow. The one exception to an Asian distribution of Meconopsis is the Welsh poppy, M. cambrica. It is native to restricted parts of Britain and Western Europe. This outlying species does not truly fit within the genus Meconopsis, and in time it is likely that this will be attended to by the botanists, with a name change.

Click above for
distribution map

M. horridula
Lapsang, Nepal

Meconopsis have been discovered by intrepid plant hunters during the course of the last 150-200 years, even right up to the present day. Very often the plants have been discovered in the wild with specimens picke and pressed for subsequent identification in herbaria, but a number of the species have been introduced into cultivation in our gardens, usually from collected seed. Some have been successful and persisted in cultivation, others have been more recalcitrant and stayed only fleetingly and some have never been introduced at all. Therefore there are many challenges within the genus for present-day gardeners with the will to take them on.

M. cambrica

M. henrici

It is difficult to be precise about the exact distribution of the many species. This is because further exploration is extending the known range of certain species and even more species are being discovered. Also the taxonomy of the genus is currently under review so that there may be name changes in the pipe-line. However, very few species have been found in the drier western end of the range, and the majority of the total of 40-50 species known are concentrated in the wetter areas eastwards from central Nepal through into south-east Tibet, north-west Yunnan, western Sichuan, Qinghai and Ganzu. From the western end of the Himalayan range, only one species has been recorded in Kashmir (M. latifolia) and one in the Himachal Pradesh (M. aculeata). From the areas of greatest concentration of species, some are more widely distributed (e.g. M. napaulensis,) whilst others (e.g. M. superba, M. gracilipes, and M. delavayi) have a much more limited distribution.

M. lancifolia

Sacred Lake, N.E. Nepal
habitat of M. paniculata

M. delavayi

M. baileyi
Rong Chu, S.E. Tibet

This is the end of Section 2; for other sections of Brief introduction to the Genus click on one of the links:

1. Defining the genus Meconopsis
2. Distribution of the species in the wild

3. Variability within the genus
4. Big perennial blue Himalayan poppies

 Copyright © The Meconopsis Group                                        Acknowledgements