I’ve always really loved poppies. I love the satiny texture of their petals, and the brilliant and showy colours that they provide, and most of them are very easy to grow. It’s hard to find a gardener who doesn’t have a fondness for poppies. Although pinks and whites and yellows and corals are certainly available for these plants, when most of us think of poppies we are visualizing the red and scarlet forms. One old-fashioned annual that doesn’t get enough attention or discussion anymore is the California poppy, Eschholzia californica and instead of being red like we expect of poppies, it is unapologetically orange.

Not a true species of poppy but certainly a close relative, the genus of California poppies was named for the German botanist Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz in the early 1800’s. There are about a dozen species found here, all native to California and Mexico, and Eschscholzia californica is the best known. It is also the state flower of California. A prolific self-seeding annual, California poppy grows only a few inches tall and matures very rapidly. Flowers are glowing tangerine orange and where conditions suit, it sometimes grows in huge numbers. The very finely cut foliage is attractive and the blossoms open and close with the sun. It flowers for many weeks at a time. In the garden, it wants full sun, average soil, and good drainage. It can handle significant heat and has no pest or disease issues. Some gardeners find it weedy but unwanted seedlings are easily removed. Many horticultural cultivars have been introduced, including a few with double flowers. White, red, yellow, pink, and lilac forms are readily available but quickly revert back to orange after a few generations. This is an excellent annual for farms and acreages.

I first grew California poppy when I was a teenager and fell in love with its ease of growth and brilliant, shining flowers of exuberant carrot-orange. I just scattered the seed in the garden where I wanted it to grow (you should do the same) and kept the ground slightly moist until they had germinated and started growing. Nothing could be easier and they hate transplanting so why create extra work for yourself? That colour, that radiant and intense orange as brilliant as any Autumn pumpkin, needs space. Orange is colour that should not be confined or crammed in somewhere. Orange needs room to be bold and loud and vibrant and delicious. Too often I see orange marigolds or dahlias or gladiolus shoved in somewhere in too small a pot, too crowded a space, and the effect is spoiled. It has led many gardeners to dislike orange, or at least fear using it in the garden. It need not be so. Don’t use orange in teeny-tiny small spaces. Use it where it can be massed with yellows and golds and pinks and bronzes and copper shades. Oranges and cinnamon browns and dusty brick-reds feel nice together. Toss in a little bit of rosy-pink or salmon to bring it all together. I like using warm shades with other warm shades. It helps the garden feel tropical and alive and creates endless opportunity for creativity. The great Canadian gardener Lois Hole once told me that she liked California poppies with the dusky blue-purple flowers of catmint. That is not a pairing for me; I’ve seen that done before and I found the effect discordant and nauseating.

At this time of the year, a lot of people are asking me what I’m starting and what I’m seeding and what they should be sowing in their windowsills right now. I actually have a strong preference for NOT starting things in the windowsill unless it is something that requires an especially long growing season. I love seeds that I can direct sow. A great many fabulous garden plants don’t transplant well and don’t like disturbance; therefore we don’t find them in those little bedding plant packs at the nurseries. People so often insist on buying started plants or starting them at home themselves. This is fine, but I love the trouble-free beauty of plants that like being sown right where they are to flower, no transplanting required. I think there’s a lesson in that. Bloom where you are planted. Don’t insist on special growing conditions and coddling. Just get out there and bloom your friggin heart out, wherever you find yourself.

There are lots of red flowers in the world. Roses and poppies and dahlias and carnations and lilies are all available in delicious, sumptuous shades of ruby and crimson and scarlet. Red is a power colour, or so the design books tell me. I don’t use a lot of red in the gardens I work in, most often because I don’t have the space to really utilize it well. Sometimes I get to dabble in warm colours and use it effectively, but it’s not an everyday occurrence. The one scarlet flower I would dearly love to use more often is scarlet flax (Linum grandiflorum).

Scarlet flax (also just called red flax sometimes) connects me to my grandmother and has fabulous presence in the garden. Those of you who know me know that I spent hours and hours and hours of my childhood and teenage years in the garden with Grandma. Out on the windy, dry farmyard, Grandma had to find plants that could handle heat and drought and wind and poor soil. Blue flax (Linum perenne) quickly became one of her favourites and mine. Imagine my delight when I found references in a gardening book to a scarlet flax. “How beautiful that would be!” Grandma said when I told her about it. I determined that I would find it for sale somewhere for her, and as luck would have it, I was able to order some seeds through a catalogue. (It was the 90’s and seed catalogues still came in the post rather than to your e-mail.)

Scarlet flax is native to the northern parts of Africa, and unlike blue flax, it grows as an annual rather than a perennial. It gets about 12-14” tall with wiry stems of small, dark green leaves and large, satiny, five-petalled flowers borne in great profusion. Depending on the lighting, the flowers can appear anywhere from a cherry-red to an intense crimson, almost always with a darker eye. It blooms all summer and waves and moves and dances gorgeously in the breeze. Resentful of transplanting and not often used in North American gardens, Grandma and I very carefully germinated the seeds in our greenhouse. We were very cautious not to disturb the seedlings when they were moved to the garden, and they were pampered and coddled a little more than some of our other flowers.

How our efforts were rewarded! Fast growing and adaptable, the scarlet flax thrived at once and smothered itself with the most radiant, dazzling red flowers one could imagine. Sometimes there were butterflies visiting the blooms. Everyone who visited the farm was invited to view the gardens and the jewel of Grandma’s eye were her numerous clumps of scarlet flax. I remember being deeply pleased that I had found something she treasured so much. It still pleases me. Grandma grew scarlet flax for many years after that and it became a signature plant of her beds and borders.

I haven’t grown scarlet flax for quite a number of years now. It showed up as a surprise in a client’s garden in Lethbridge when I sowed a random packet of “wildflower” seeds and I also once had one show up seemingly of its own free will; a gift from the birds perhaps. A few cultivars have been quietly introduced, including some with white or salmon or rose-coloured blooms and while these are pretty, they are not the intense fire of the species. I asked Grandma in fall if she still grew scarlet flax. She sighed deeply. “I haven’t grown it for many years”, she said wistfully. “If I could get the seed again I might sow another row of it. It was always so beautiful.” I ordered several packets for her immediately. I’ll make sure she gets those seeds this spring so she can direct-sow them in her garden. I’m looking forward to seeing her happiness when they bloom. I also kept one packet for myself. I don’t know where or when I’m going to grow them but the seed will keep for years in a cool, dry place. They will be ready when I am ready. When those burning, cardinal-coloured blooms appear I’ll feel my Grandma’s pleasure and pride once more, no matter where she might be.

At once both familiar and mysterious, the fabulous nightshade family (Solanaceae) contains well known and popular flowers such as the petunia and vegetables like tomatoes and eggplants. Tobacco is also in this family. So are peppers. Many plants in this family contain significant toxins, and many are as deadly as they are beautiful. I’ve always been fond of these plants. They are often sophisticated and exotic, and many of them are very easy to grow. In general I think they have a lot to offer.

The angel’s trumpets are plants I haven’t grown for a very long time but maybe I should give them another go this year. They take up a lot of room in the garden and they aren’t often available anymore- there has been near hysteria in some circles regarding how poisonous they are and there are also a great many social media pages with completely false and fabricated tales about them. Afraid that our bored and untrustworthy teenagers might smoke the foliage and thus harm themselves, many garden centers simply do not sell these plants anymore. This is a shame. Many plants are poisonous. Angel’s trumpet is toxic, yes, but only if you eat it. As long as you aren’t licking it, cooking it, putting it in your salad, or adding it to the cake you just made it can’t harm you. What is the big deal? I suppose common sense is lacking in our world. If people get an idea in their heads that something is harmful they don’t want to buy it, and garden centers are obligated to sell only what people want.

Botanically, a great deal of re-organization has happened with these plants. Mostly from central and South America, the angel’s trumpets have been split into two genera. Datura represents the herbaceous species that grow as annuals or perennials. Brugmansia are the species that actually form woody tissue and become trees or shrubs. In general, Brugmansia has the wider colour range and their flowers are pendant. Datura blossoms are smaller and point upwards. Both are deliciously fragrant in the evening hours, the better to attract the night-flying moths that pollinate them. (The exception is Brugmansia sanguinea; a non-fragrant scarlet flowered species pollinated by hummingbirds.) Datura is usually grown from seed; Brugmansia is almost always grown from cuttings.

I started growing angel’s trumpets when I was around 14 or 15. I grew them from seed that my Grandma and I ordered through one seed catalogue or another (probably McFayden), and although their germination can take up to a month and you need to start them quite early, there’s nothing difficult about it. We would sow them in our greenhouse in February or March and by May we had lovely plants to put outside. They grow very quickly and have large, softly velvety green leaves and tend to be wider than they are tall. They can be up to 3 ft. tall and 4 ft. wide (or sometimes bigger) and they will bloom all summer.

Wanting full sun, average soil, and ample heat and water, angel’s trumpets are easy to care for assuming you get a nice, hot growing season for them. In cold, wet years they are miserable and will fail to perform. Once they begin to bloom, they don’t stop. In the evening, the amazing trumpet-shaped flowers begin to unfurl. Up to 6” long (depending on the species and cultivar), the blossoms are usually white but can also be very pale pink or mauve. A few unfortunate looking double-flowered cultivars in purple and yellow also exist. (Avoid those.) ‘Missouri Marble’ is an elegant and very feminine variegated selection. There are also some hideous dwarf varieties “bred for containers.” (No thank you. “Compact growth habit” usually means amorphous mound-shaped plant stripped of its natural shape and dignity.) Some that I got from a co-worker she called “moon lilies” and she had been saving her own seed for years. They had the largest flowers of any Datura I ever grew, and the least fragrance.

As beautiful as the blossoms are, the fragrance is really the reason to grow them. On warm summer nights their rich, powerful scent is carried on the air sometimes for considerable distances. Each blossoms only lasts for a single night, being continually replaced by more. If pollinated, the flower gives way to a small, prickly looking pod sometimes called a “thorn-apple”. If we get a long enough summer without an early frost, they will often ripen and split open, scattering seeds hither and yon.

Angel’s trumpets have presence in the garden, and their mysterious and stylish blooms are not only beautiful, they add the much-needed element of scent. There is value in this. A garden should be a sensory experience. They draw one to the garden in an otherwise unutilized part of the day; sitting outside on a warm evening with a glass of wine while the fragrance lingers on the air is enchanting. So beguiling were they that the great American artist Georgia O’Keefe just had to paint them. She did so several times, in fact, and her work is sensual and even erotic. It is not easy to capture the ethereal grace of these flowers but she did so like nobody else ever has.

It is also worth mentioning that we don’t use nearly enough white in the garden. White reflects light, and the blossoms glow in the dark like beacons. They beckon one to come forward, and the delicious fragrance asks us to stay and linger awhile. Every garden needs some element of the mysterious and the divine, and the angel’s trumpets are as good a candidate for that as I can think of.