Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Poppies - The Truth and the Myth

Images: Papaver Orientale

The Papaver somniferum or “opium white poppy” is an annual and it is illegal to grow in the United States. Occasionally, it has survived in some very old gardens but generally you will not run across this flower or find seeds on sale from any legal vendor. In addition to the “herbalist” qualities, it is highly poisonous.

Papaver Eschscholzia is what is known as the “Californica poppy.” An annual in our zone, it is a beautiful often orange-gold variety although there are other similar colors available. It will occasionally self seed.

The Papaver Orientale is the perennial poppy grown in our area. They have been hybridized in new colors and petal designs besides the standard red and orange. Always beautiful, they resent being transplanted.

Papaver Meconopsis or the “blue grandis poppy” is a stunning clear blue perennial beauty and may survive in our zone but it’s very sensitive to wet conditions, especially during the winter. It is sometimes sold as a tender annual in area nurseries.

There are other species but the above are the ones typically found in our area of Illinois.


Poisonous: It is safe to assume all parts of poppies (except the roasted or steamed seeds) are highly poisonous if ingested.

Annual Poppy:
Annual poppies may be directly sown into the soil in early spring. They may bloom until fall. If they self seed, you may easily pull the shoots in places where you do not want them.

Perennial Poppy:
The perennial poppy resents being transplanted because it has a long tap root. It may be grown from seed or transplanted from nursery stock. Once it is established in the right spot, you may forget it, it will be enjoyed by generations.

These poppies are known as a “culinary herb” and are native to the mountainous regions of Turkey. The plant leaves and stems can be prickly and hairy. Later in the season, the plants die back (go dormant) and should be placed where fall perennials can hide this phase. They will again come up in the fall but do not bloom.

The flower is cup shaped with the petals looking like silk. They are short lived both in the garden and when picked but certainly worth it in both places. To prolong the life of the flowers, cut tight buds early in the morning and sear the cut end of each stem with a match or candle flame before placing it in water. Some people's skin is sensitive to the milk from the stems.

Attractive, grayish-green, vase-shaped seed heads form after flowering is finished. Pods contain thousands of tiny, dark brown, kidney-shaped, edible seeds, which have a mildly spicy, oily, agreeably nutty flavor. Poppy seeds are used to top some recipes of bread products.

Poppy seeds are rich in carbohydrates and calcium, and are a good source of energy. The poppy-seed oil has a very high content of unsaturated fatty acids, especially nutritionally valuable linoleic acid.

I have problems getting perennial plants to start but once they are established, they do fine. They are not particularly cheap and when I lose one I always say I’ll never plant another – THEN I see them blooming and try again.

Illinois Poison Center, at 1-800-222-1222, or visit it’s Web site at www.illin

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