Colorful explosions of early spring poppy blooms are sure to prompt countless conversations regarding the poppy family’s long and fascinating history.
Not so long ago, the word “poppy” commonly referred to a small, flower-shaped lapel pin crafted from red and black paper that veterans distributed on Memorial Day. Now, many who hear the word think of the tiny poppy seeds used in the culinary arts; Georgia O’Keefe’s iconic poppy paintings; the magical sleep-inducing field of poppies penned in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; the garden cultivars that add exotic, early spring pizazz; and even the illegal drug trade — raw opium is derived from the sap of the opium poppy.
All of the aforementioned associations refer to a large botanical family of plants, Papaveraceae, commonly called the “poppy family.” These plants have a worldwide distribution, but they favor subpolar to temperate latitudes with pronounced winters and poor, disturbed soils. Papaveraceae cultivars are sun-loving and, with a few exceptions, are short-lived annuals that reproduce primarily through seeds. Poppy plants’ exquisite flowers feature four to six oversized flaring petals with a tissue-paper-thin, finely crinkled texture that’s reminiscent of silken fabric. Color is usually, but not always, brilliant red with a black base. Each of these gorgeous flowers produces an abundance of pollen that bees consider pure gold. Perhaps the agriculture community and vegetable gardeners alike should launch a new mantra: “Plant Poppies!”
Of the nearly 200 species of plants commonly referred to as “poppy,” only a few types of poppies have commercial or ornamental value. These species are sure to start you down the poppy-lined road.
With its thin, silky red petals and black centers, the corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) could easily serve as the archetype for the entire family. Corn poppies are so hardy that throughout England and Europe they’re often considered an agricultural pest. The alternate name, Flanders poppy, is based on John McCrae’s 1915 poem, “In Flanders Fields,” and its famous first line — “In Flanders fields the poppies blow” — which references the poppy blooms on soldiers’ graves in Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial in Waregem, Belgium. For decades, the Veterans of Foreign Wars distributed paper or plastic representations of corn poppies on Memorial Day, solidifying the poppy’s symbolic meaning as a metaphor for the blood of fallen soldiers.
A popular ornamental cultivar of the corn poppy, the ‘Shirley Poppy’ cultivar, was developed by William Wilks in the parish of Shirley, now a part of Greater London. This cultivar is robust with compact, fern-like leaves and is a prolific bloomer. Although red is still the dominant color, long-term genetic manipulations have developed a mixture of white and pastels — primarily pink and salmon — often on the same plant. Petals are also often augmented with white rims, and may or may not have black bases. Some variants feature fringed petals and even multi-petals. Flowers of the ‘Shirley Poppy’ are fragrant — unusual for poppies — so they lend themselves to indoor flower arrangements, which is also why this cultivar is marketed for widespread use in garden landscapes throughout the world.
The arctic poppy (Papaver nudicaule) is the most cold-tolerant and heat-sensitive of all commercial poppies, thus its native range across Siberia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and subarctic North America. The plants are short with sparse, dainty, feathery leaves — adaptations to their cold native habitats — and they usually expire before spring is fully underway. Pure species have four paper-thin petals that are either white or yellow with clear or yellow centers. However, many cultivars exhibit multicolored pastels. The colors, much like those of sweet peas, and a mild fragrance make arctic poppies great in flower arrangements.
The Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) is a commonly cultivated poppy across the United States, where it’s grown in Zones 3 to 9, although it prefers more northern locales where summers are not too sultry. The species is native to the area where southeastern Europe borders western Asia, including the Caucasus Mountains, Turkey, and Iran. Plants are perennial, although foliage dies shortly after the flower blooms. Cultivation is usually completed by transplanting or root cuttings, but be aware that Oriental poppies have long taproots, which will need care. This species is not commonly cultivated in the southern United States because of difficulties with transplanting. Foliage is fernlike, and flowers are large and sit on long stems — a distinctive advantage in the garden. Petal color typically ranges from orange to scarlet with black bases. Oriental poppies usually bloom later than other ornamental poppies because they develop from a fibrous perennial rootstock that requires soil warmth before sprouting.
The scientific name for the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) translates as “sleep-inducing poppy,” a reference to the strong narcotic qualities imbued within the plant. The opium poppy is the only species in the poppy family that has been cultivated — legally and illegally — as an agricultural crop for at least the past five millennia. In Turkey, India, and across the Middle East, opium poppies are grown for opioid narcotics, such as opium, heroin, and morphine, and for cooking oil, flour, and fodder for domestic animals. The dried seeds are used worldwide in salad dressings and bakery products, such as poppyseed muffins, breads, cakes, and cookies.
Opium poppies can attain a height of 3 to 5 feet, and they possess silver-green leaves that are deeply lobed with soft spines. Flowers can be huge — up to 5 inches across — and are composed of four open petals that form a black cross at their base. Although reddish-coral is the typical petal color, white, lavender, purple, and pink are also available. In some countries, these rare flower colors are preferable for seed coloration.
In addition to the variance in petal color, horticulturists have developed cultivars that sport fancy petals as well as multi-petal forms that resemble a pompom. These plants produce sizable globular seedpods that contain a latex-like sap. This is the liquid that contains the greatest concentration of opiate alkaloids. Each pod houses more than 2,000 tiny seeds that are eventually released through 11 to 13 valves located beneath the pod’s apical crest. Although the green pods contain most of the narcotic alkaloids, small amounts of these chemicals also are found in seeds and the poppy plants’ discarded leaves and stems. Because dried pods are attractive in their own right, they are used by the floral industry in flower arrangements.
While opium is considered both a blessing and a curse, when all is said and done, the opium poppy is an exceptionally beautiful garden flower. For this reason, the species has been cultivated for centuries as an ornamental in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Even botanical gardens and other formal gardens often exhibit the plant and its numerous cultivars in seasonal displays. Because of this popularity, the U.S. Federal Drug Enforcement Administration has not interfered with the cultivation of the species by the horticulture and floral industries or for use by individuals in their personal landscapes.
The California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is native to the deserts of the American Southwest. The official state flower of California, this species sports numerous small, buttery-yellow flowers that follow strong spring rains. Because of its massive blooms, the California poppy has graced the pages of many calendars and postcards. Plants are low-growing with delicate, parsley-like foliage. Unlike most other species, flowers of the California poppy are not very crinkly, and they close at night. Another oddity is that the seedpods are elongated, much like those of a small snap bean.
Species within the Argemone genus, commonly known as prickly poppies, are found throughout arid climates, including the Desert Southwest, where the plants are often abundant along roadsides, waste sites, and pastures. Popular species include the Mexican prickly poppy (Argemone mexicana), flatbud prickly poppy (Argemone munita), and the Mojave prickly poppy (Argemone corymbosa). Ranchers should take note that prickly poppy sap is toxic to domestic livestock, but birds and other small wildlife relish the seeds. Plants are stout, can grow to 4 feet tall, and are thistle-like in form and color, with leaves 8 inches in length. Flowers consist of six all-white petals. However, the stamens in the center produce a yellow eye. The flowering period of prickly poppies is spring through fall, and they reproduce by seeds held in prickly, slightly oblong pods that resemble a cocklebur. While considered a noxious weed throughout the Southwest, the plant is attractive and a prolific bloomer. For these reasons, prickly poppies are commonly used in urban landscapes that feature native, xeric plants.
The cultivation of poppies is relatively easy, provided that certain procedures are followed. Keep in mind that these species are sun-loving, seasonal, heat-intolerant, and prefer well-drained, sandy soils. Additionally, because root systems of most species are fine and shallow, the plants do not transplant easily, except from containers. To get around this, it’s best to begin cultivation with seeds in place. Incidentally, poppy seeds are inordinately fertile, and plants often reseed in unlikely places, such as gravel driveways and in cracks in pavement and brickwork. Use small germination peat pots or simply broadcast directly on site. In the northern United States and in Canada, seeds should be sown after the last frost. In more southern venues, the days between Halloween and Thanksgiving are the preferred time for sowing seeds to produce blooms in March and early April. This gives roots the opportunity to develop throughout the mild winter. If actual young plants are purchased, use the same time schedule as used for sowing seeds. Then, with the first warm days of spring, the small plants will bolt and quickly produce their dramatic floral displays as harbingers of spring. However, when daytime temperatures routinely exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures don’t dip below 70, the plants quickly wither and die. By collecting seeds beforehand, the savvy gardener will guarantee a future spring of stunning beauty.
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