Colour reversion in poppies

(Question)

I have poppies in my garden (west-facing, lots of sun in afternoon) in Toronto which were bright red about 5 years ago. Every year, the colour gets lighter and now they are pale pink. Is this normal, can anything be done to prevent it or return the poppies to their original colour? Thank you.

(Answer)

It isn’t unusual for flowers to change colours, for a number of reasons: returning to original colour, attracting pollinators, and cross pollination, to name a few reasons.

I took a look at a few sites, and spotted the following blog:

https://tanyasgarden.blogspot.ca/2010/06/is-my-poppy-chameleon.html

Many of the people who posted noted that they had some of the same issues, but it seems most didn’t worry about it. Some reported the colour change may have been due to different weather patterns over time, while others felt that there was cross breeding, or more likely, the plant returning to either an original state or a new state.

This sort of thing, returning to an original colouration or changing to a different state is not unheard of in many plants. In the former, a variegation that had been bred into a plant can sometimes be supplanted by the original colour. For example, the euonymus, ‘Emerald Gaiety’, is variegated white and green. It’s parent plant is Euonymus fortunei – a hardy, but plain green shrub, often called wintercreeper. Occasionally, ‘Emerald Gaiety’ grows a green leaf branch, harkening back to it’s origin. To keep the shrub variegated, it is suggested that the green branches be pruned out. Now, the variegated branch that was first discovered in the green euonymus was described by breeders as ‘sports’. As a new change from an existing plant – it was seen as desirable, and therefore breeders took cuttings and continued to breed the plant for its variegation.

In term of flowers, botanists see that colour change does happen to attract pollinators. This can be noted in a number of plants commonly grown in the garden: Common Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) flowers change from pink to blue, for example.

As I don’t know exactly what your poppy is, as there are many species, I cannot give a definitive reason for a colour change. I did however find a short reference in the New York Times “1000 Gardening Questions and Answers” (2003) book that may answer your question. Most people are familiar with the large, papery Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale) with the blowsy orange flowers. It sometimes comes in red, pink or white. The latter colours will often revert to the standard orange. It is a perennial. The  very familiar annual Flander’s Field poppy, or Corn Poppy (P. rhoeas) is naturally the scarlet red, but  are often sold in seed mixes with white, pink and picotees.

However, another poppy, the Opium Poppy or Lettuce Leaf Poppy (P. somniferum) is an annual, and reseeds. It’s original colour are usually pink or mauve, but can sometimes come in red or white.

So, it is possible that your poppy has seeded itself to its original pink or mauve colour. If you don’t like the poppy currently in your garden, you can remove it before it reseeds. Unless you are willing to delve into the realm of breeding, it’s not possible to revert it back to the preferred red. I would recommend getting new poppies, some of which are noted above.