Friday, March 25, 2011

Papaveraceae - Part 5

Oh, my. Has it really been that many days since I wrote. Hmmm.
Poppies again, second to last post on them. Today I would like to tell you all about Papaver somniferum - the Opium Poppies. Now these get a bad name. They're the ones we're trying to eradicate in Afghanistan. It is almost certain that the opium poppy was first cultivated for seed in Neolithic times and that it was spread by humans throughout western and northern Europe from where it originated in the Mediterranean Basin. It also spread eastward to India. The earliest known reference to Papaver somniferum is in an herbal written in 2000 B.C., although its use probably goes back a lot farther than that. The Egyptians used it as a sleep inducing medicine. The Greeks made a drink from the stems, leaves, and fruit-capsules that they used as a pain killer. Hippocrates called it 'Poppy Wine'.

Papaver somniferum

By the 7th century A.D., the cultivation of opium poppies was common throughout the Arab empire. The Arabs called it 'Father of Sleep'. By 1000 A.D. cultivation was also common in Europe. In China, it was grown more as a food (think poppy seed bread or something like that). In the eighteenth century they imported their opium from India and traded for it with gold and silver which was used to buy tea and silks for import into Europe. This trade was controlled by the British East India Company. By the middle of the nineteenth century, opium addiction had become such a problem in China that the Chinese government banned the use and import of opium. This led to war between China and the British. It is unfortunate that this beautiful flower has been responsible for so much suffering through addiction to opium and heroin when it has so many useful properties in medicine and surgery. (codeine and morphine are just 2 of over 20 alkaloids that have been isolated from it. )

Papaver somniferum with different type petals

This plant is also widely grown for its seeds which contain no appreciable levels of harmful alkaloids and which are edible and can be used as a condiment on breads, in salads and so on. They are also important as a source of oil used for a variety of purposes - cooking oil, paint, soap.

Papaver somniferum 'Flemish Antique'

Despite its nice and not so nice attributes, this is just one lovely garden plant. We grow them in many places, mostly of their choosing since the self seed however they like. The flowers are atop tall stiff stems, commonly about 3 feet tall. The grey/green leaves are mostly at the base of the stem. The flowers are usually 3-5 inches across, thought I'm told there are some cultivated selections that can have flowers up to 7 inches across. These very double blooms are often called peony flowered. Flower color is usually pink, at least on the wild form, but there are also white and purple and combinations of these available either as plants or seed. They are more readily available in Europe than they are here because of import restrictions.

Papaver somniferum with Bumblebee
I've been told that they are fragrant, but although I've never noticed much scent, the bees really love them. They do have to work hard to find the pollen on these very double blooms.
Once established, they self seed just about anywhere. They will grow in good soil or bad, nice deep loam or rocky places. Sun is better, but if they find themselves seeded into a shady spot, they'll still bloom quite happily. You will see the little plants coming up very early in the spring. They grow quickly and bloom in early summer through the fall. If you want nice flowers, thin the seedlings so that they have plenty of room, or you will have lots of tiny, straggly plants with small flowers. These are quite good as cut flowers, but you have to be sure to burn the stem as soon as they're picked. It is best to pick them just as the blooms are starting to come out for the longest lasting and sturdiest blooms.

Papaver somniferum 'Black Cloud'

The dried seed pods are good in dried fall arrangements. Pick them before they open at the tops to let the seeds out and then hang them upside down over something to catch the seeds which can be used in cooking or to plant more poppies. If you want to plant the seeds, scatter them where you want them to grow as soon as you collect the seeds. Saving the seeds until spring doesn't work and transplanting them is often unsuccessful as they resent disturbance once they start growing.
These are a worthy addition to any garden and will be noticed (can't be missed) by anyone who comes into your garden. I love how they just pop up here and there; my garden would seem much less cheerful without them.


NellJean said...

I'll have blossoms in a day or two.

Hoot Owl Hollow Nursery said...

I'm jealous. We won't see any blooms for a couple of months yet.