Why I Love Using Plume Poppy In My Garden

– Posted in: Garden Design

I’m not making any apologies for the, uh, shall we say the more “robust” nature of several plants in my garden. Plume poppy (Macleaya cordata) is certainly one of them. The exuberance of its architectural pizzazz is matched, or nearly so, by the plant’s tendency to travel. I’m not saying it’s invasive-I try to stay away from anything that spreads rampantly by seed–but friends make fun of my predilection for the plumed wonder and similarly vagabond-prone garden thugs (which spread by running roots rather than seed). They say I make too much work for myself. And a Gardenweb post rails about the curse of the plume poppy. Gimme a break! This is one gorgeous plant. You just have to put it in the right place.


In the right place, plume poppy is a plant of stellar attributes. Let’s count the reasons:

1) Big dinner-plate sized leaves–and I like my leaves big, since working with oversized leaves really opens up your options for making dramatic shape- and size-based combinations that confound a traditional sense of scale in the garden.

2) An intriguing leaf edge–each richly scalloped and lobed leaf is equal parts curiousity and beauty.

3) That alluring silvery blue hue–plume poppy’s foliage is one of those goes-well-with-everything colors that make it a welcome companion in almost any color scheme. And let’s not forget the ghostly, whitish underside of the leaves, which is sometimes revealed by a stray gust of wind.

4) The plumes–oh yeah, those tall, finely textured, creamy white spires that make up the plume poppy’s flower are, again, a shape, texture and color  that looks good with everything.

5) Stature–these plants are among the taller perennials and can top off at eight feet, so they are well suited to creating dramatic backdrops or cool-looking specimen plantings.

6) A sturdy constitution–plume poppies are not going to get whiny about a lack of drinking water, or whimper about less than ideal soil. They take everything from full sun to part shade.  They’re tough.

7) They’re versatile–plume poppies fit right in with perennial and mixed borders, and they’re at home in more eclectic plantings like this tropicalesque corner of my garden.


On the downside, yes, they can be vigorously rhizomatous spreaders. But their imperialistic, empire-building tendencies are so easily thwarted! Each spring, when emerging plants are just a few inches tall, I stage a pre-emptive strike. I patrol the edges of my plume poppy clusters, and yank any outlying clumps may be forming a breakaway republic. They come out of the ground very easily, and one inspection a season usually suffices. I only worry about this in one spot, where I’ve used plume poppy to accent a small rise. By planting lower growing shrubs and perennials at the bottom of the small slope and tall things like trees and plume poppy up top (that ‘s it at the upper right of the photo topping this post, happily waving its plumes), I’ve made the change in height appear more dramatic. I’m fortunate to have a large garden and since I usually plant this lovable hulk only in problem areas where it can run to its heart’s content, I rarely do anything at all to tend plume poppy (see reason #6, above), other than appreciate it.

Our archive of articles is so deep at GGW that I have begun to go back into reading and posting them from time to time. Although Steve Silk no longer writes for GGW, he is an avid plants man whose love for gardening is evident in his writing. Would love to hear your comments – ideas, successes, problems, siting suggestion- and anything else you want to share about this delicate looking, yet very assertive perennial. Fran

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Barbarapc January 10, 2009, 3:54 pm

People never understood why I had Great Danes and St Bernards either – big showy plants are fabulous – I say great first pick!

I am so with you on this, Barbara. I love big plants, big leaves. Actually the plume poppy foliage is about what I consider to be starter size for plants that qualify as big-leaved.–Steve

Adam Woodruff January 10, 2009, 4:17 pm

Steve. Thanks for this informative post! I have always been tentative about using Macleaya in my work. Based on your comments about controlling the plant I have to reconsider my hesitation.

Give ’em a try, Adam. Based on what I’ve seen of your gardens, they’d fit right in. BTW, liked your anchoring plantings with tropicals post. That’s a favorite technique of mine too.–Steve

carolyngail January 10, 2009, 4:52 pm

You had me from the word ” big dinner plate sized leaves !” I’ve written my post on the Plume Poppy. Thanks for selecting it.

Carolyn–Thanks! Happy to have picked the Plume. I’m surprised by the comments, I thought there would be at least a few readers who were horrified that I’d even suggest such a thing. Maybe they’re still recovering from shock. Looking forward to swinging by your site!–Steve

Helen @ Gardening With Confidence January 10, 2009, 6:05 pm

Just gorgeous!

Thanks Helen! Plume poppy makes it easy to add a dollop of drama.–Steve

Victoria January 10, 2009, 7:16 pm

Yes, a very convincing argument for Macleaya cordata. Until I saw the pictures of your colocasias: now I want some of those!

Anything with big leaves is OK by me, Victoria. But thanks for the idea–I may have to do a plant pick on the whole elephant ears gang–Alocasias, Colocasias, and Xanthosmas–have yet to meet one I didn’t like. And they are good consorts for the plumed wonder.–Steve

Les January 10, 2009, 7:45 pm

I was once reluctant to put this in my yard due to its reputation, but I said screw it, I am doing it anyway. The flowers are interesting, but the bluey foliage is great, and I have it planted in front of Thuja ‘Yellow Ribbon’. The blue and the gold make each other look good. It is bounded by the house’s foundation and an super thick border of liriope the previous owner put in, and together these seem to contain it. I have noticed that in extremly dry years it can look ratty, so a little extra water helps. Here is a close up from this past summer of the foliage with a little much needed rain on it.

Plume Poppy with Rain

Les-That sounds like a good combination of both color and texture. I know you folks have been getting some extreme drought they past few years, way, is that why they need water? Up here, even in the driest years, mine have looked pretty good.–Steve

Craig @ Ellis Hollow January 10, 2009, 8:08 pm

This is a plant that you made me realize I take for granted. Yeah. It’s got a lot going for it. I posted about it with an artsy-fartsy picture here: http://www.remarc.com/craig/?p=559

Hey Craig-It looks great with those alliums poking through. Hmm, I may have to steal that combo.–Steve

jodi January 10, 2009, 8:47 pm

I’m with you on plume poppy; I really love it especially on foggy summer days when the leaves and flowers are festooned with jewels of water. It’s in competition with some daylilies, Euphorbia ‘Fireglow’ and globe thistles (I love textured foliage), so they manage to sort it out amongst themselves, with a few rhizome removals in the spring by me.

Agreed, it’s ghostly in the fog, and I should have mentioned the way water sometimes beads up on those leaves. So beauteous! I’ve got some of those Darwinian garden spaces too, where the tough just battle it out with each other. Keeps things interesting, that’s for sure.–Steve

Nicole January 10, 2009, 9:13 pm

Very dramatic and lovely. I’ll have to check to see if it can grow in tropical climes. I am also one who does not shy away from spreading plants as I don’t feel a true gardener should only plant things that “stay put” or anything that requires a bit of effort. Of course. like you, I also have lots of space.

Hi Nicole–Not sure about tropical climes for this baby–but you already have so much to choose from. Wish I could swap you a plume poppy for some of the fantastical plants you can grow in that part of the world. I remember a trip to…was it Andromeda gardens down your way? As a result, I came away with a very bad case of plant lust.–Steve

Becky at Cool Garden Things January 10, 2009, 11:40 pm

I love big leaves too. They remind me of being in the tropics. That garden is beautiful….I wish I were there now.

Me too, Becky. Big leaves are the best. And that’s why I like them–they remind me of the tropics, and magical kinds of places. You should look for my two big leaf posts this past summer on GGW.–Steve

Neil January 11, 2009, 2:03 am


I’m really glad I found your site before. Everytime I look at your website, my jaw drops! It is so gorgeous. I learned a new plant again from you and that is plume poppy. It’s so beautiful! Where can I get seeds? Can I buy seeds from you?

Again, it’s stunning!!!

Thanks Neil! I’ve seen seeds offered from JL Hudson, PO 337, La Honda, CA 04020. A great catalog!–Steve

Kitt January 11, 2009, 3:52 am

So dramatic! It makes the chairs look positively Lilliputian.

I see you garden in CT, Steve, so I guess this is a cold-hardy plant. What kind of soil, light and moisture does it like? (It probably wants more water and less sun than it would get here in Denver, alas.)

It is cold-hardy Kitt, to USDA 3 according to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s excellent site. In fact I’ve seen them in gardens in the Denver area, so they do grow there. Moist, well drained soil in sun to part shade is what they like best, Probably the hsshadier part of that specturm for you. As for water, I never water mine, even inthe driest years, but don’t know how our dry years might stack up against your dry years.–Steve

Janice @ Calgary Garden Coach January 11, 2009, 10:25 am

You’ve convinced me. I must find space for one of these! Gorgeous photos!

Hi Janice–Just make sure you find a lot of space. Not sure, but I think they’d be hardy in Calgary. Glad you liked the pix!–Steve

Josh January 11, 2009, 2:53 pm

I do love the bold statement plume poppy makes, as long as it is in the proper site. Like you say, though, it is easy to pull when the shoots are just coming up in the spring.

Several years ago, my patch threw out a variegated shoot. Can you imaging how fun that would be?! Alas, it didn’t return the following year. It lives on in photos, though…


I wrote a short blurb about it shortly after I discovered it. I’m sure I jinxed it…


Enjoyed seeing your variegated shoot, too bad it was so short lived. Could you possibly arrange for the next one to survive and to have a gold edge variegation? That would be very spiffy.–Steve

Neil January 12, 2009, 2:08 am

Steve, I forgot to ask. Are they invasive in zone 5a? Do they self sow?


Invasive to me means they spread all over the garden. That shouldn’t be a problem. I can’t recall evidence of many seedlings, though it may self sow. Mostly it runs by spreading, underground roots, but is not difficult to control.–Steve

Sylvia (England) January 12, 2009, 7:34 am

Steve, good choice, I like the leaves. I have seen this before and would like to grow it but the only suitable place I have is quite windy. I have Cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) in a similar position but if they blow over they quickly produce new growth again. Do you know how wind resistant they are? Do they regrow again in same season if blown/cut down?

Best wishes Sylvia (England)

Thanks Sylvia–I’ve found plume poppy can be a bit brittle. In my experience, the shadier the site, the greater the chance they may topple over in a significant storm. They won’t regrow that same season, so it’s a matter of trimming them up so they look presentable. This has not been much of a problem for me and we do get some significant, pounding storms. You could sidestep the problem by doing a little pre-emptive staking.–Steve

Lynn January 12, 2009, 12:43 pm

Hi there and thanks for a great idea for height and lots of interest. We have a small rise between our yard and the neighbor’s, and I’ve been looking for some great-looking shrubby things to help fill in and give an attractive but not opaque screen. Soft, tall plumes sound like just the thing.

Hi Lynn–It’s a quick, easy way to establish some height, that’s for sure. And it will make a nice backdrop for smaller shrubs or perennials–almost with burgundy foliage looks great with plume poppy.–Steve

Christopher C NC January 12, 2009, 6:50 pm

I saw the Plume Poppy at the Biltmore in Asheville NC and it was an immediate, I must have that. I have plenty of room for it and after twenty years gardening in Maui, a little spreading in a zone 5b/6a seems rather innocuous. Let’s get real. The stuff freezes to the ground on an annual basis. To me that is like a huge assist in the work involved in keeping things in check.

I think I discovered your Hawaii blog just as you were pulling up stakes. What a change! But yes, a freeze does cut down on the maintenance, and it gives the gardener a little time to be dormant too. Enjoy your plumes.–Steve

Ginny H. January 13, 2009, 12:45 pm

Love the plant, hate how it spreads…and in central Illinois, spread it does – and rapidly, both by seed and by rhizomes. Here it reseeds almost as much as Cleome or Verbena bonariensis. It’s definitely not a plant for the faint of heart…

But I agree with you on it’s beguiling nature. If someone has the space and the inclination to try it, they should.

That’s interesting Ginny-I get almost no reseeding here and I bet we are in similar zones–I’m a warm 6. I imagine seedlings must be easy to identify because of their leaf color, and they most be easy to yank. I agree its not a plant for the faint of heart, but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained.–Steve

Page June 10, 2009, 5:03 pm

Aloha. Yes, this plant is horridly invasive in tropical areas, at least Hawaii. My organization has spent over $30,000 of taxpayer money to remove this plant. Two ornamentals were planted in Wood Valley and spread to over 5000 acres of abandoned sugar cane land. We try to educate gardeners here that what they plant and can manage in their garden can spread by wind and birds to public lands and cost public agencies thousands of dollars. Hawaii has problems from many plants which cause no problems in their native range. We have limited natural enemies and open ecological niches due to our very isolated location.

Bev Garcia July 24, 2009, 2:42 pm

My garden is in NW Illinois. Like many people, I started with a couple plants and now have dozens, but fortunately have places that they can roam. They can overtake a site, but I culled out some wandering roots this spring and transplanted them into more shady locations under maple and walnut trees. Those new transplants are now robust and flowering. Measured them today and they range from 8 to 12 feet tall to the top of their floral plumes. The taller ones are in full sun on a slope of somewhat sandy soil. Love their leaf shapes which create interest at all times of the summer season. Nice to have plants that take such little care, are sturdy and, so far, haven’t snapped in wind or rain. Have never tried to prune them back or deadhead them, so was wondering if others have, what was their experience with the outcome.

Glad to hear from another plume poppy fan. My garden got hammered by hail not olong ago and I whacked back a lot of my plume poppy which was shredded and toppled. It’s starting to leaf out again, will be interesting to see what happens with it.–Steve

Neil August 30, 2009, 1:23 am

Hi Steve,

Got 2 plume poppy plants this afternoon. We dug it from a friend’s garden. The other one was dug yesterday. When I arrived home, I planted them in full sun location. Also, when I arrived home, they weren’t looking good, droopy. Do they transplant well?


Pamela blum March 13, 2015, 11:09 am

Gorgeous garden. What are the other plants in the top picture? We have a hill with full afternoon sun. Thank you.

Fran Sorin March 14, 2015, 6:13 am

Pam- That post was done years ago by a contributor who is no longer active on GGW. I am able to see that Steve has dahlias and daylilies in the mix. But beyond that, I don’t know the others. It is indeed a magnificent garden. Fran

Jeanne October 17, 2015, 5:58 pm

I love these. I first discovered these when I went to England for garden tours. I fell in love with it the first time I layer eyes on it. So back at the states I found one, and did it ever grow. But I didn’t know how it would spread so I dug it up and no longer see any shoots. I wish I would of kept it. Love this article on it. Thanks!

Melanie White November 23, 2015, 10:29 am

You shouldn’t make apologies! Robust gardens are awesome and very natural looking! I totally agree that the plume poppy can be a real asset to your garden, you just have to take the right approach to it. And their height can serve as a dramatic backdrop to smaller plants. You have a beautiful garden!

Jan Johnson July 4, 2017, 9:10 am

Thanks for this good article, I too have these plants in my woodland garden but didn’t know what they were until now. I love but didn’t know what they were until now. I love their large and friendly flowers in the summer!

Maureen Pearce August 20, 2017, 8:22 pm

Your site povided us with an answer to a neighbour’s problem plant – the Macleaya cordâta. We think this is a lovely specimen despite the negatives attached to it : invasive, posionous. We hope to ‘Steal’ seed for our garden before the plant is destroyed by our neighbour.
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Carol Baker-Frett May 5, 2018, 8:46 pm

I just bought one of these at a garden club sale. Was thinking of putting it under a Norway Spruce a day few feet from a garden shed that’s open
Under neath. Any have thoughts about this location.

Sarah Donovan May 26, 2018, 7:27 pm

I have grown plume poppy in basically the same area for 15 years, a strip of flower garden on the north side of a wooden neighbors fence. About 20 feet long x6 feet wide, last year a big gust of wind and rain blew tops down, so unfortunately had to reduce its size in height. I LOVE it , the Bumblebees love it, and my car loves its shade. I sit under it in hot sun, and the bumblebees don’t mind me they are too busy!

Marjorie Moser June 6, 2018, 10:06 am

Thank you for singing the praises of plume poppy! if I may add one more – it prints and dyes a beautiful yellow on silk with an alum mordant.

Marjorie Moser June 6, 2018, 10:13 am

Well though, I just read that the yellow sap is poisonous! So never use for dyeing or printing!!!
Best, Marjorie

Vincent Summers October 27, 2018, 9:36 am

Why do I enjoy the plume poppy? It’s true, it’s unusual beauty. But somewhere, in the back of my mind, I know it is associated with my childhood. I don’t know how, but it brings back a kind of warm, settled feeling for me.

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