Grow Opium Poppies

| February/March 1998

  • An opium poppy with fringed petals
    Photograph by Joseph G. Strauch, Jr.
  • Light plays through a patch of showy Iceland poppies.
    Photograph by Rob Proctor
  • a peony-flowered opium poppy
    Photograph by Joseph G. Strauch, Jr.
  • a typical opium poppy with dark blotches at the base of its single petals
    Photograph by Joseph G. Strauch, Jr.

  • Photograph by Rob Proctor
  • ‘Danebrog’ opium poppy has a lacy look and bold coloring.
    Photograph by Rob Proctor

  • Photograph by Rob Proctor

"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.

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