I’ve arrived at that inexplicable place where I’ve forgotten the hassle and headache of eradicating Macleaya cordata, a colonizing perennial that once ran roughshod in the front garden, only to find myself once again considering adding it back into a border in another part of the garden.

This cycle, dumbfounding as it may be, is nothing new in my gardening life, but as regular as lunar cycles that pull the tide and were once thought to govern human behavior. Am I the only one who has only recently made the connection between lunar and lunacy? I digress.

lobed green leaf of plume poppy

Wouter Hagen via wikimedia

A useful thug

Plume poppy (Macleaya cordata) is a vigorous rhizomatous perennial, which is plant-speak for: This plant is a thug. I would add, a lovely, striking thug with a narrow profile and slender sturdy stems that grow 5- to 8-feet tall without staking.

Beautifully lobed sea-green foliage with a silvery reverse and panicles of pink buds that produce creamy white flowers that ripen to rusty plumes, lure admiring gardeners (like me) into thinking plume poppy would be ideal in a small garden (like mine). With proper siting, plume poppy creates a very serviceable seasonal hedge, providing a verdant backdrop to other resilient plants or it may be used to seasonally screen an unwanted view of the garbage cans or the neighbor’s garage. The entire plant dies completely to the ground in winter.

Plume poppy (Macleaya cordata)

Denis.prévôt, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

However, while all that loveliness is waving about in the breeze and providing a dramatic focal point in the garden, beneath the surface of the soil plume poppy is sending out rhizomes and irretrievably tangling with the roots of all your favorite perennials. While the plant won’t rupture your sewer or cause your sidewalk to heave, its colonizing ways can quickly overtake less sturdy treasures. Plume poppy does not play well with others of a more delicate growing temperament. No, this is a candidate for wilder corners of the garden.

Inflorescence of Macleaya cordata

Denis.prévôt, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tough love

Macleaya cordata is a resilient plant that demands few inputs. Cushy garden conditions, rich soil, and ample water, encourage its wanton ways. Poor soil and moderate water curb the plant’s enthusiasm, as does deadheading blooms to prevent ripe seed from furthering its takeover. The plant is slow to emerge in the spring, but that’s the best time to control spread by removing unwanted shoots as they appear.

Given the right conditions in an appropriate growing region, this lusty plant is both a bold garden statement as well as a lesson in cultivating responsibility. Gardener, know thyself (as well as thy growing region and climate), and plant accordingly. What works in my garden may not be appropriate in yours.

The intended site for my future plume poppy is a rangy border where my grip is decidedly looser than in other more manicured parts of the garden. I call it the pollinator border, which sounds so much nicer than unkempt and neglected. Bordered by asphalt on one side and gravel on the other, beds in this metaphorical back forty are filled with beefy plants that bloom for an extended time. Rugosa roses, showy milkweed, Verbena bonariensis, ornamental grasses, and self-sowing annuals, hold their own with little intervention on my part.

With flowers that are rich in pollen and nectar, plume poppy provides valuable support for bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects. I think it will settle in nicely rubbing shoulders (or, duking it out) with its neighbors.