The Amazing Poppy Plant

Most commonly cultivated varieties of the ornamental poppy plant.

amazing poppy plants

Beauty, intrigue and variety describe flowers in the poppy family.

Photo By Gary Noel Ross

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The word “poppy” denotes different things to different people. Not so long ago, the word was commonly associated with a small, circular flower lapel pin crafted of red and black paper and distributed by veterans on Memorial Day. There also are the tiny poppy seeds used in the culinary arts, the huge iconic “Red Poppy” paintings of Georgia O’Keefe, the magical sleep-inducing field of poppies penned in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the garden cultivars that add such exotic pizzazz in early spring, and even the illegal drug trade — raw opium is derived from the sap of the “opium poppy.”

All of the aforementioned refer to a large family of plants known botanically as Papaveraceae — literally “poppy family.” These plants have a worldwide distribution but favor subpolar to temperate latitudes with pronounced winters and poor soils in disturbed venues. All species are sun-loving and, with a few exceptions, are short-lived annuals that reproduce primarily through seeds. Flowers are exquisite: four to six oversized flaring petals with a delicate tissue-paper-thin and finely crinkled texture that’s reminiscent of silken fabric. Color is usually, but not always, brilliant red with a black base. Each flower produces an abundance of pollen that is considered pure gold by bees, an additional plus when bee populations seem to be in crisis and farmers are experiencing lower pollination of their commercial crops, including tree fruits and forage crops. Perhaps the agriculture community and vegetable gardeners alike should launch a new mantra: “Plant Poppies!”

Of the nearly 200 species of plants referred to as “poppy,” only a few have commercial or ornamental value. Here are the most commonly cultivated varieties.

Field Poppy, Corn Poppy, Flanders Poppy, Corn Rose, Red Weed (Papaver rhoeas). With its thin, silky red petals and black centers, this species could easily serve as the archetype for the entire family. Furthermore, the corn poppy is a hardy species that is widespread throughout England and Europe, where the plants are regarded as an agriculture pest. The alternate name, “Flanders poppy,” is based on a poem penned by John McCrae, a Canadian physician and lieutenant colonel during World War I. The poem, written in 1915, is a solemn tribute to the victims of war. The title, “In Flanders Fields,” refers to the first line of the poem: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow.” The poem was inspired by the massive bloom of poppies observed at the fresh burial sites of soldiers in Flanders Fields, the generic name for military cemeteries in Flanders, Belgium. For decades, paper or plastic representations of these flowers have been created and distributed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Memorial Day in the United States and on Remembrance Day in Commonwealth countries — the so-called “Buddy Poppies.” As such, the red corn poppy has become the ubiquitous metaphor for the blood of fallen soldiers.

• Shirley Poppy. Because of the rankness of the corn poppy, a more ornamental cultivar was developed. In 1880, in the parish of Shirley (Croydon District) in England, the Rev. William Wilks developed such a variety. Respectfully named the Shirley Poppy, the genetic variant is robust with compacted fernlike 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. Often, too, petals are augmented with white rims, and may or may not have black bases. Some variants feature fringed petals and even multipetals. Flowers of the Shirley poppy are fragrant — unusual for poppies — so they lend themselves to indoor flower arrangements. It is this Shirley cultivar that is marketed commercially for widespread use in garden landscapes throughout the world.

• Iceland Poppy, Arctic Poppy (Papaver nudicaule). Native to Iceland, northern Europe and northern Canada, this is the most cold-tolerant and heat-sensitive of all commercial poppies; plants usually expire before spring is fully under way. The plants are short with sparse, dainty, feathery leaves — no doubt, adaptations to their cold native habitats. Pure species have four paper-thin petals that are either white or yellow with clear/yellow centers. However, cultivars exhibit multicolored pastels. The colors, much like those of sweet peas, and a mild fragrance make Iceland poppies great in flower arrangements.

Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale). This is considered the most commonly cultivated poppy in the United States, although it prefers more northern locales where summers are not too sultry. The species is native to the area where southeast Europe borders western Asia, including the Caucasus Mountains, Turkey and Iran. Plants are perennial, although foliage dies back during summer. Cultivation is usually by transplanting or root cuttings. Foliage is fernlike, and flowers are large and on long stems — a distinctive advantage in the garden. Color typically ranges from orange to scarlet with black bases. Many fancy cultivars are marketed. Because Oriental poppies usually develop from a fibrous perennial rootstock that requires soil warmth before sprouting, the plants bloom later than other ornamental poppies. In the South, however, this species is not commonly cultivated because of difficulties with transplanting.

Opium Poppy, Breadseed Poppy, Common Garden Poppy (Papaver somniferum). The scientific name 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 family cultivated — legally and illegally — as an agriculture crop for at least the past five millennia. In Turkey and the Middle East, for example, opium poppies are grown for opioid narcotics — opium, heroine, morphine, codeine — cooking oil, flour and fodder for domestic animals. The dried seeds are used worldwide in bakery products, such as poppy-seed muffins and breads, desserts such as cakes and cookies, and salad dressings.

The plants can attain a height of 3 to 5 feet and 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 color, white, lavender, purple and pink are also available — and in some countries of origin are the preferred hues because of seed coloration. In addition, horticulturists have developed varieties that sport fancy petals as well as multipetal forms that resemble a pom-pom. These plants produce sizable globular seed pods that contain a latexlike sap. It is this liquid that contains the greatest concentration of opiate alkaloids. Each pod houses upwards of 2,000 to 3,000 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 straw — 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 plant itself 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. Consequently, because of this popularity, the U.S. Federal Drug Enforcement Administration historically has not interfered with the cultivation of the species by the horticulture and floral industries or for use by individuals in their personal landscapes.

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica). This species is native to the deserts of the American Southwest. The official state flower of California, this species sports numerous small, buttery yellow flowers following a strong spring rain. Because of its often massive blooms, the California poppy has graced the pages of many calendars and postcards. Plants are low-growing with delicate parsleylike foliage. Unlike most other species, flowers of the California poppy are not very crinkly, and in addition, they close at night. Another oddity is that the seedpods are elongated, much like that of a small snap bean.

Thistle Poppy, Prickly Poppy, Desert Thistle Poppy, Cowboy’s Fried Egg, Devil’s Fig, Chicolote (Argemone spp.). Within the genus, several species are virtually indistinguishable from one another. All are commonly found in the Desert Southwest. The plants are often abundant along roadsides, waste sites and pastures — the 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 thistlelike in both 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. Flowering period is long — spring through fall — and reproduction is by seed 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. Therefore, the plants are commonly used in urban landscapes featuring native, xeric plants.

The cultivation of poppies is relatively easy, provided 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 is 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 North, 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 and nighttime temperatures do not dip below 70, the plants quickly wither and die. By collecting seeds beforehand, the savvy garden will be guaranteed a future spring of exotic beauty.

Gary Noel Ross, Ph.D., is a retired professor of entomology residing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He is a John Burroughs award-winning nature writer, is affiliated with the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the University of Florida, and is the director of butterfly festivals for the North American Butterfly Association. Each spring, his garden is ablaze with several species of poppies.