This species is now well established in cultivation and can be purchased as young plants or raised from fresh seed (for members of the Meconopsis Group). It was first discovered in north-eastern Tibet (now Qinghai province) in 1884 by the Russian Przewalski and soon thereafter herbarium material collected by Potanin. It was eventually introduced into cultivation by E. H. Wilson in 1903 from a seed collection in N.W. Sichuan and later more successfully by Joseph Rock in Gansu. It never really took a proper hold in cultivation until it was re-introduced in 1986 by Cox and Hutchinson. I can well recall a visit to the RHS Horticultural Halls from Roy Lancaster who unfolded a pocket handkerchief and passed on a pinch of good seed he had collected in SW China. That was me (Edrom Nurseries) starting out with this lovely plant in the mid 1980s.
In nature Meconopsis punicea grows in mixed scrub on open hillsides and in woodland margins at an altitude of 2800 – 4600m. It grows in close proximity to other species of Meconopsis including, MM. integrifolia, sinomaculata, psilonomma and quintuplinervia with which it hybridises to produce M. x cookei.
In cultivation, it would be churlish to suggest that this species can be grown easily, however in ideal conditions, well suited to Meconopsis in general, it is not challenging at all. In Grey-Wilson’s most recent Monograph of the genus, he states that the species is a “tufted perennial, sometimes monocarpic”. In my experience I would describe it as a monocarpic species (taking a year to flower and from a single rootstock will die), sometimes perennial. A few observers have suggested that the plants can be perennial and, on closer observation the plants have been “bunch pricked out” meaning that the plants are made up of a number of plantlets, fooling one to think that it is perennial. In fact the strongest plantlet will flower and die allowing subsequent plantlets to strengthen up and flower.
Some of the finest plants I have seen offered are stocks raised by the very experienced Dr James Cobb and I would say that when you get started with good quality plants such as these and get them in position in early spring they will flower well and produce good seed. I do not recommend planting out in late summer or autumn as the young plants may be encouraged to flower early and very poorly. In the garden I would choose a partly shaded area providing a good deep soil with added humus made up of very well-rotted horse manure or leaf-mould. This may sound as if I am still in business but I would recommend at least 7 plants and they should be given some 9 to 12 inches apart. In a good year, such as this, the species will commence flowering in E. Scotland towards the end of May. A succession of flowers on strong plants will persist until the end of June.
During this time the individual flowers will go over and the maturing capsules will turn upwards from their nodding position. At this stage the capsules need to be watched as they will begin to dehisce (open up). They need to be removed and placed in a clean and dry, empty yoghurt pot. When the capsules are all dried out and open, the seed can be removed and placed on a clean white card. The seed must be graded and only the grains that are the size of Demerara sugar can be retained and sown right away in an acid seed compost. I always cover the seed with a thin layer of coarse sand, label well and water from the base. The seed may well germinate in the autumn and I would leave them well alone and not prick out until the spring. As I have already said I would not prick out singly but endeavour to prick them out in twos or threes.
There can be no doubt that, as the late Sir George Taylor commented in his Monograph of 1934, “No species has drawn such superlative and almost extravagant epithets as M. punicea”, he was correct. Planted amongst a few choice leafy plants such as Podophyllum or Epimediums and some of the perennial blue-flowering Meconopsis, M. punicea can be shown off to its very best.
I can fully recommend the lovely cultivar M.’Sichuan Silk’ raised by Ian Christie from wild-collected seed. This is a fertile clone that may well have some M. quintuplinervia blood in it as it produces slender offsets making it a fine garden plant. If raised from seed it should correctly be named M. Sichuan Silk Group. The flowers are a subtle shade of strawberry red.
The hybrid Meconopsis x cookei ‘Old Rose’ is a strong growing perennial with pinkish-mauve coloured flowers and easily grown in dappled shade.