By Maryann Readal
Poppies are a colorful springtime addition to the garden bed. Their striking crepe paper-like flowers tower over other perennials that are just beginning to put on new growth for the season. The deeply lobed, light green leaves readily fill in the empty spaces that can later be filled in with summer annuals when the poppy finishes its dramatic display.
These show-stopping blooms are the source of poppy seeds, the Herb of the Month for The Herb Society of America. Each bulbous poppy seed pod contains hundreds, perhaps thousands of gray-black seeds. The seeds are edible and are often sprinkled on top of bagels and used in cakes. They are also added to salad dressings and are the star ingredient in one of my favorite Polish pastries—poppy seed strudel. The seed pod itself creates its own drama in the garden and when dried, makes a striking addition to flower arrangements.
However, the sap, also referred to as opium gum, from the unripe poppy seed capsule, leaves, and to a lesser extent the stems, contains the compounds morphine, thebaine, and codeine. Morphine and thebaine are then used to synthesize heroine and oxycodone, respectively. Because of its pain-relieving properties, the poppy is an important medicinal plant in the pharmaceutical industry. Most of the medicinal opium comes from Turkey, India, and Australia. According to a United Nation report, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Mexico are the major illegal growers of opium poppies from which heroin is made.
Poppies have been used as a medicinal plant for nearly 6000 years, when it was first cultivated in Southwest Asia. The list of its uses in folk medicine is quite extensive. Ancient Sumerians referred to it as hul gil or “joy plant.” Its use and cultivation followed the Silk Road to China where it became the reason for the Opium Wars in the middle 1800s.
Today, it is illegal to grow the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, for large-scale production in the United States. But growing P. somniferum is typically ok for ornamental uses in the home garden. An interesting read is an essay published in Harpers written by the food writer and journalist, Michael Pollan, who detailed his soul searching deliberations about growing ornamental poppies in his own garden.
Poppies are very easy to grow in sun and good soil. There are many different varieties and colors. In the north, they can be a perennial. However, in southern gardens they are only an annual. Seeds, which can be broadcast over the bare earth, are sown in the early spring in the north, and in the south they are sown in late fall. Mixing the seed with sand helps to evenly distribute the seed. The plants have a deep taproot and do not like to be transplanted. If the seed pods are left on the plants, they will reseed themselves, and you will have plenty of stunning volunteers to color your garden the following year and for many years thereafter. They tend to hybridize easily, so if you want to maintain a certain variety of poppy, you need to keep different types separated. Growing P. somniferum for ornamental purposes can be illegal in some states. Consult with local law authorities.
Remembrance Day and Memorial Day are the times when we wear the red poppy to remember those who sacrificed their lives during wars. The Flanders poppy, Papaver rhoeas, grew profusely over the graves of fallen soldiers in WWI when the seeds were exposed to the light they needed to germinate. John McCrae, a brigade surgeon during the war, wrote of these poppies in his poem In Flanders Fields.
For more information, recipes, and a colorful poppy screensaver, visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Maryann Readal is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX and gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.