The poppy (Papaveraceae spp) is a common wildflower in many parts of the world including North America, Asia and Europe. It is often found growing in fields, both wild and cultivated grain fields. There are many varieties of poppies in just about any color you could wish for.
The bowl-shaped flowers appear one to a stalk held high above the plant, up to four feet, depending on the species.
Blooms may be single or double. Many stamens circle a plump pistil consisting of a multi-celled ovary which develops into a really cool looking pod with many holes from which the seeds escape when the pod is shaken either by you or by the wind. When cut, poppies ooze, sticky, milky white latex.
Some Poppy Species of Note
Opium Poppy Papaver somniferum
aka Common Poppy, Garden Poppy, Chessbolls, Florist Poppy. This annual has been cultivated for centuries. It is native to Southeastern Europe and Western Asia but has naturalized throughout Europe and the US due to its popularity as a garden plant. The seeds are edible but all other parts of the plant should be considered toxic.
Opium is harvested from the sap of the green seed pod and further processed into the various opioid drugs used for pain management and recreation. Flowers are famously either white or bright red but cultivars are available in orange, mauve, black, and many other colors.
California Poppy Eschscholtzia californica
aka Golden Poppy, Cup of Sunlight, California Sunshine. This is the official state flower of California and has its own day, April 6th. Native to the Western and Southwestern United States and Mexico, this perennial can be grown as a self-seeding annual in cooler climates.
It is drought tolerant and good for sunny, dry spots in the yard. Different colored cultivars are available, but their offspring is likely to return to type- sunshine orange. Seeds are edible.
Corn Poppy Papaver rhoeas
aka corn rose, field poppy, Flanders poppy, red poppy, headache, headwark. This is a vigorously self-seeding annual and common weed that has lived side by side with grain crops for centuries so that it has come to be somewhat symbolic of them.
They thrive where the soil is disturbed, such as battlefields, where they earned their symbolism of remembrance of fallen warriors.
Oriental Poppy Papaver orientale
A popular garden perennial; tall, with huge, bright orange or red blooms. Very striking. There are many cultivars available.
History and Folklore
Red poppies have been a symbol of remembrance of those who died in wartime since a famous poem described the brutal trench warfare that took place in the poppy fields of Flanders1 during World War I. This is why Veterans wear and distribute poppies2 on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day3 in the US and throughout the world on Remembrance Day4.
Centuries before this, however, it was believed that poppies sprung up in places where men died in battle and white poppies are said to have sprung up in the battlefields of Genghis Khan.
Red poppies have also long been associated with sleep and death, perhaps because the narcotic made from the opium poppy can easily bring about both. Ancient Greeks and Romans presented them as offerings to the dead.
In the Victorian Language of Flowers, poppy symbolized eternal sleep, oblivion, imagination. Red poppies also mean pleasure, the why poppy means consolation and the yellow poppy means success.
In Persian literature, the poppy is a flower of love and symbolizes those who died for its sake.
According to Servius, Demeter loved a youth named Mekon. When he died, she turned him into a poppy.
Hypnos, Greek God of Sleep and Dreaming, sometimes carried a poppy stalk or a horn filled with poppy juice.
Gardening with Poppies
Poppies are popular ornamental garden flowers because they are visually striking and easy to grow with the right conditions.
Annual and perennial varieties are available, but the annuals tend to self-seed readily. Poppies enjoy a sunny situation in well-drained soil but will tolerate some shade.
You can also sprinkle the seeds on a prepared patch of soil and sit back and watch, they will grow quite easily. It’s a good idea to mix the seeds with a medium such as sand before sprinkling to ensure they disperse evenly. Also, planting them this way opens them up to competition from weeds before they are strong enough to stand up for themselves.
So, if you don’t know the difference between a baby weed and a poppy seedling, you might end up with more weeds than poppies. As soon as the poppies have significant height, you should mulch them well to discourage weeds.
Established poppies can be divided and replanted in the autumn to allow the disturbed root system a period of rest before new growth in the spring.
To encourage repeat blooming, cut off spent flowers. Or if you’d like to encourage the interesting pods, let them ripen on the stalk. They do reseed prolifically, so you may want to collect the pods before they release the seeds to control your poppy population.
Poppies aren’t bothered by most pests but young poppies are very attractive to slugs. Poppy seeds are loved by many varieties of birds.
Medical Uses of Poppy
Opioid narcotics are made from the sap of the immature seed pod of the Opium Poppy.
Leaves of the California Poppy were used medicinally by local Native American tribes. It has a sedative effect.
Culinary Uses of Poppy
Poppy seeds can be used to flavor sweet and savory dishes and are particularly tasty in salad dressings and baked goods.
The seeds are generally considered safe but may be contaminated by the opium in the latex of the seed pod if it is damaged by injury or insect predation.
There have been some reports of people testing positive for heroin in drug tests after eating poppy seeds5. Washing, soaking and cooking the seeds may (or may not) help reduce this risk.
The young leaves of the opium poppy are reported to be edible and tasty, provided they are picked before the flower heads form. After this, opium begins to form and the leaves are no longer considered safe.
Magickal Uses for Poppy
Poppy is considered feminine in action and resonates to the energy of the moon and the element of water.
It is suitable for any rituals involving Hypnos, Thanatos, Somnus, Nyx, Demeter, Persephone and for offerings to the dead, particularly those who died in battle.
Poppies are considered useful in spells for fertility, agriculture, abundance, love, sleep, money, luck, and invisibility.
Write down a question on a small piece of paper, roll it up and insert it into a poppy seed pod. Place the pod under your pillow and your dreams will help guide you to your answer.
Poppy seeds can be used to create confusion and delay paperwork, especially if combined with black mustard seed and used to stuff a poppet or dressing a candle used in sympathetic magic, or carry it on your person.