Mother Earth Living

Grow Opium Poppies

By Rob Proctor
February/March 1998
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Photograph by Rob Proctor
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"Here dear,” said the gray-haired woman as she pressed an envelope of seeds into my hand, “you’ll like these.” The neat script read “Giant Pink California Poppy”, and I stuffed the envelope hastily into my pocket as I shook hands and answered questions after a lecture.

That brief exchange nearly fifteen years ago was my introduction to the opium or breadseed poppy (Papaver somniferum), though I didn’t realize it at the time. I scattered the seed in early spring, expecting to see the ­finely divided leaves of California poppies emerge. Instead, tiny rosettes of fringed turquoise-gray foliage appeared. Intrigued, I watched the young plants as they grew like blue lettuce, quickly sending up erect stalks reaching nearly 3 feet high. “This is one helluva California poppy,” I marveled.

My anticipation swelled along with the pendant oval buds. Finally one morning, the pink petals broke free, the blossom swinging skyward as the sun baked its crinkled petals to a satin sheen. A muff of golden stamens encircled the pale green stigma. It was love at first sight.

Individual poppy flowers last only a day. Perhaps their fleeting nature adds to their allure. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote:

But pleasures are like poppies spread, / You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed; / Or like the snow falls in the river, / A moment white—then melts forever.

Plop a poppy anywhere

Opium poppie plants bloom in many shades and forms. The flowers may be white, pink, mauve, lavender, raspberry, maroon, red-orange or bicolored. A contrasting dark blotch at the base of each petal is a common feature. The simplest form is a four-petaled single. Occasionally these have fringed petal edges; the red-and-white ‘Danebrog’, or ‘Danish Flag’, has not only lacy edges but big white basal blotches.

Other varieties contain so many petals that the central stigma and stamens completely disappear beneath them. The ones that look like Hostess Snowballs (those bright pink ­coconut-covered snack cakes) are known as peony-flowered poppies. Some forms are cultivated for their extra-large seedpods, which flower arrangers find desirable. One of them, ‘Hen and Chicks’, has a central large pod surrounded by smaller satellite pods.

The sun-loving annuals germinate during cool weather, sometimes even in winter. They thrive in well-drained soil and tolerate a degree of drought but easily perish in waterlogged clay. Seedlings can be difficult to transplant, but some gardeners get good results by starting them in plug trays or six-pack cells.

Opium poppies start flowering in early summer here in Denver (ear­lier in the South, later in the North) and continue blooming for several weeks. After flowering, the plants quickly decline as the pods swell and the leaves wither. A few capsules may be left to self-sow (each contains hundreds of seeds); the remaining plants are easily pulled and composted.

Selected forms cross freely in the garden, thanks to bees, which seem to pass up every other blossom in the garden when the poppies are in bloom. The results of their hybridizing efforts are surprising and can be delightful. To keep selected strains pure, you must grow them in seclusion: at least 30 feet between colonies is a good (though not bee-proof) buffer zone. Remove unwanted rogues as they open, or embrace the uncertainty.

Despite their relatively brief bloom period, opium poppies can make an important contribution to a garden’s design. They consort amiably among herbs and other garden flowers, both perennial and annual. Their broad, glaucous leaves contrast with the fine-textured foliage of rue and artemi­sias. Self-sown seed­lings may pop up almost anywhere, lending a casual cottage-­garden grace to even a rigid plan.

Poppy power

Opium poppies were among the first crops to be cultivated. No one can say when the first human learned to use their unripe seedpods’ milky sap to alleviate pain or fever or to soothe and pacify a teething baby. We can only speculate when the first baker sprinkled the seeds on a loaf of bread. Poppy seeds have been discovered in caves occupied by prehistoric peoples (and probably stuck between the teeth in the skulls of prehistoric bagel eaters). The species is thought to have originated in Asia Minor or the Mediterranean region, but it has been cultivated so long that it has become naturalized from Spain to India.

According to Roman legend, the goddess of agriculture, Ceres, was having a bad year. The wheat crop, which came under her domain, was failing miserably, and she felt weary and fretful. These days, we’d attribute her state to the stress of career burnout and suggest that she take a mood elevator. Somnus, god of sleep, came up with the ancient equivalent by creating poppies to ease her cares and put her to sleep. Ceres awoke refreshed and relaxed, the crop was saved, and her image thenceforth was shown with a garland of wheat and poppies in her hair and a silly grin upon her face.

A plant that could relieve pain and hunger, ease anxiety, and allow people to work longer and harder proved invaluable, but habitual use of the drug prepared from the sap of its unripe pods proved addictive and even fatal. Tests on some Egyptian mummies have revealed high levels of the drug, which we know as opium. Some ancient hieroglyphs are rumored to translate as “Just Say No”. Opium contains more than twenty-five alkaloids, including morphine, narcotine, codeine, and papaverine. Put them all together and they spell trouble.

The ancient Greeks were well aware of the healing properties of the opium poppy. The Romans spread the plant throughout Europe and into England. The spread of Islam took the poppy to India, and Portuguese traders introduced the practice of smoking opium to China in the seventeenth century. Millions of Chinese became addicted to it, and the emperor banned its importation. Smuggling of the banned substance from India into China nevertheless became big business for En­glish shipping companies. Attempts of the Chinese viceroy in Canton to halt the drug’s importation led to the infamous Opium Wars of 1839–1842 and 1856–1860, with capitalist England finally prevailing. Everyone except the Chinese made ­oodles of money with opium.

English citizens were also susceptible to the drug. Laudanum, or loddy, a solution of opium and wine or other form of alcohol, was a favorite beverage among the poorer classes throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, and opium was a chief ingredient of both British and U.S. patent medicines during that period. With ­peculiar irony, ax-wielding temperance activists like Carrie Nation, who led the prohibition movement against alcohol at the turn of the century, were hooked on their opium-laced patent medicines. Certainly, the medicines would soothe one’s nerves after a hard day of smashing up the local saloon.

A subtle warning about opium abuse appears in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the children’s fable by L. Frank Baum published in 1900 and later immortalized in the 1939 MGM movie. The Wicked Witch, seeking to thwart Dorothy and her companions on their journey to the Emerald City, creates a field of poppies. “Poppies, poppies will make them sleep,” cackles the green-faced witch as she casts her spell. That scene in the movie, however, uses the generic Oriental poppy, which possesses no narcotic properties. I was leery of Oriental poppies for years; Baum’s symbolism didn’t become clear to me until recently. The Wicked Witch still scares the tar out of me.

Opium has played an important legitimate role in medicine. Morphine, one of its derivatives, is still a primary weapon against intractable pain. Opium poppies have long been grown commercially in many countries for use in treating diabetes, bronchial disorders, malaria, dysentery, rheumatism, even elephantiasis, and as a preoperative painkiller. In addition, they continue to be grown on a large scale for the fine seed, particularly for use in baked goods.

The seeds have no narcotic value. Fond as I am of poppy-seed bagels, I can’t recall the slightest bit of euphoria from eating one aside from the satisfaction of a belly full of bread and cream cheese; however, the seeds do contain some compound that has produced positive readings in drug tests.

Is it legal?

That’s the vital question for gardeners. The answer is no—and “sorta kinda maybe”. Both law enforcement agencies and gardeners are in an awkward position. It’s illegal to grow P. somni­ferum, but no one wants to go around locking up innocent little old ladies (or, I hope, innocent middle-aged writers). Several people have been arrested in recent years for growing poppies to process into opium, sometimes in conjunction with other illicit drugs. Some seed companies have been pressured to stop selling the seed even though sale of the seed is legal.

If the police tracked down the woman who gave me the seed, could she be arrested? Maybe. Could she be tried and convicted? Probably not. Officials would consider her motive: did she grow the poppies with the intent of harvesting them to produce opium? Obviously not. She thought she was growing “Giant Pink California Poppies”.

The whole issue seems completely frivolous to me. Gardeners all over grow opium poppies alongside their dill, petunias, and roses. They grow them for the beauty of their foliage and flowers and the usefulness of the seed. The gardeners I know seek relief from their constant chores with a hot bath, a bowl of ice cream, or an occasional gin and tonic. It would be a shame for the war on drugs to spill into the refuge of our gardens and result in the banishment of a beautiful flower.

A CROP OF OTHER POPP

The genus Papaver is a large and lovely one: 50 species grow throughout temperate and subtropical portions of the Northern Hemisphere. Some, such as Oriental poppy (P. orientale), are herbaceous perennials; others are annual or biennial. All have striking flowers in vibrant colors. The only complaint one might raise against most poppies is that their flowers pass by too quickly.

The Oriental poppy, native to southwestern Asia, is perhaps the most popular of all poppies. Neighborhoods all over America erupt with its fiery, molten orange blossoms in late spring and early summer. Although the vivid orange-red form is most common, several selections offer alternative shades. Among these are salmon-pink ‘Helen Elizabeth’; ‘Perry’s White’, which features a nearly black patch at the base of each alabaster petal; and cerise-pink ‘Raspberry Queen’. The unusual coloration of ‘Patty’s Plum’, recently introduced to this country from England and Ireland, is reminiscent of chocolate cake batter.

Other perennial species sometimes found in gardens include the central Mediterranean spiked poppy (P. held­reichii) and Moroccan poppy (P. atlanticum). Spiked poppy’s rosette of hairy gray-green leaves is topped by felt-clad spikes 18 inches to almost 3 feet tall. In midsummer, many single flowers of pastel apricot appear near the top of the spikes over two to three weeks. Moroccan poppy also forms a low-growing rosette of downy gray-green leaves; its apricot-pink flowers are borne singly on wiry stems about 10 inches high.

Iceland poppy (P. nudicaule) comes from Siberia, not Iceland, although a close relative clings to the cold northern coast of Greenland. Gardeners in cool climates, especially in the mountains, often have success growing this short-lived perennial. Its large, showy blossoms in white, orange, yellow, and pastel sherbet shades are supported on thin, hairy stems among small rosettes of green leaves.

Grainfields in Europe glow with the bright orange-red blossoms of corn poppy (P. rhoeas), also known as Flanders poppy. Its flowers, blooming in Belgian battlefield cemeteries during World War I, inspired the poem “In Flanders Fields”, by the Canadian poet and physician John McCrae, and they became the symbol on Remembrance Day in Canada (Veterans Day here, Poppy Day in Britain) to honor fallen soldiers in all wars. The seed of P. rhoeas is sometimes used in cooking as a substitute for that of P. somniferum.

The Shirley poppy is descended from P. rhoeas. An English clergyman, Rev. William Wilkes, spent two decades developing the multicolored, multipatterned strain from a single white-edged flower he discovered in 1879 or 1880. Contrary to popular belief, the name Shirley commemorates not his wife but his village. The Shirley poppies have recently yielded the Mother of Pearl strain, which blooms in delicate, satinlike shades of pink, lavender, and pearly gray.

Armenian poppy (P. triniifolium) has only recently become a popular garden flower, especially in the western United States. Extremely adaptable, this biennial plant withstands drought and part shade to produce a striking rosette of finely cut leaves in its first season. Like those of opium poppy, the leaves are nearly aqua-gray; they effectively accentuate the pretty apricot blossoms that are produced by the dozen on branching stalks during the second season. Though only half the size of those of opium poppy, Arme­nian poppy flowers are produced over a longer period—as long as a month. They pair well with penstemons, irises, and mulleins.


Rob Proctor, a great-great-etc.-grandson of Robert Burns, grows great poppies in Denver, Colorado, and is coauthor, with David Macke, of Herbs in the Garden (Interweave Press, 1997).


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