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The Poppy and The Poseur

by germinatrix | December 8th, 2011

mmmm... poppies. photo by Linda Lehmusvirta

I have had a long-standing love affair with poppies.

sigh! the soft petals with splotches at the base, and the tantalizing center ... photo by Joseph Tychonievich

But when I say “poppies”, I don’t mean that little orange flower that cheerfully, happily pops up in the late spring and early summer, carpeting the roadsides of California, Texas, and other warm, xeric environs.

bright and perky! sweet and cheerful! but NOT a REAL POPPY!!! photo by Susan Morrison

I mean POPPIES – statuesque, hypnotic, dark, mysterious, dangerous … yes, dangerous. THAT is the poppy I tango with.

It’s not that I have anything against Eschscholzia californica – the little California poppy that poppy naifs think of as a true poppy – I think they are lovely little things, and I use them in designs and enjoy them as a tough wildflower. But I WISH they weren’t called “poppy”. I want that name reserved for the glorious, glamorous Papaver somniferum – the opium poppy.

swoon. I'm yours. photo by Joseph Tychonievitch

Yes. Opium. The stuff that started wars in the far east. The stuff that certain dens are named for, places where Chinese men (and several expats from far and wide) would smoke their lives away, falling into an addictive hazy netherworld forever. Poppy gives us a powerful drug. I TOLD you she was dangerous! And like many dangerous women, she comes to us draped in mad beauty. She is seductive, sexy, and very very tempting. She emerges from the earth; her elegant, cut leaves first becoming a silvery rosette that is already a wonderful addition to a garden. But then the flower head shyly emerges, peeking out from the center of the leaves, head bent on the slender stem as if Poppy is supplicating herself to you – HA! Don’t be fooled! It is YOU that is the supplicant.

shy. just you WAIT. photo by Linda Lehmusvirta

As Poppy bathes in the sun and becomes fully in possession of her powers, she raises her head and stands proudly, like a ballerina taking center stage. She is getting ready for her moment – her grand performance. Her head becomes full and suddenly opens to reveal one of her secrets, an incandescent blossom that has few rivals in the plant world. It doesn’t matter what variety, they are ALL bewitching; they all captivate. This is the first way they pull us in. Bees can’t resist them, they dance among their stamens and pistils and “do the deed”, while the poppy smiles a secret smile. She knows what is coming!

gulp. I wish I was the bee! photo by Linda Lemusvirta

When they have preened and been stroked, cooed over and sufficiently … um … admired, the gossamer petals fall off, one by one, like a striptease, to reveal a swelling, fertile seedpod. As divine as the blossom was, it is the seedpod that makes me shiver. It swells, becoming rounder, tighter – there is a “crown” that becomes evident as the seeds ripen. When the seeds are ready to be set loose, they escape through little holes beneath the crown – Queen Poppy is a wonder of design. The wind dances with her, and every time she sways she sends her seeds flying, planting more, more, more – collaborating with nature to plant a corps de ballet of intoxicating beauties wherever the seeds may fall.

there are secrets in the pod, but you have to know what you're doing... photo by Linda Lehmusvirta

Intoxicating. Remember, we are talking about the opium poppy here. The latex sap that exudes from the swelling seedpod is, in fact, opium. Lachryma papaveris, or “poppy tears”. Sigh … everything about Poppy is alluring, even the words used to describe the resinous secretion that gets you high. The Lachryma of garden variety Papaver somniferum has 12% morphine in it – it takes a field of poppies to create something that actually has enough narcotic properties to pack a punch, but many people report that opium “tea” made from garden poppies has a soothing, soporific effect. The poppy used in the production of opium and heroin in the Middle East and Central America is a very potent cultivar that has more than 90% morphine in its latex. In the U.S. it is technically illegal to grow Papaver somniferum, but these laws are vague and difficult to enforce on gardeners that are growing them in obvious ornamental settings, or growing them for poppyseeds used in baking.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her co-horts take a shortcut to the Emerald City through a field of poppies, and all fall asleep. This was always my favorite image in the movie – Dorothy in her blue gingham gently folding herself into a carpet of red flowers… drifting off… I had no idea what it meant, but the image was captivating. When I had my first garden, I wanted it to be a field of poppies, so I planted hundreds of Black Thundercloud poppies in my front yard and threw caution to the wind. It was beautiful – but I have to admit to being nervous whenever a police car would slowly roll by. I was certain I was going to be busted. I never was. But the poppies got alot of attention – and the local birds were always pecking at the seedpods and dreamily flying off; their version of an afternoon cocktail, I suppose.

It is time to start casting your poppy seeds to the wind and inviting these exquisitely complicated lovelies into your garden, if you feel so inclined. Can YOU dance with Poppy? Or are you someone who would rather be friends with the little California poppy, the sweet, happy flit who, just because her name is also poppy, might be getting a bit of a boost to her reputation. No – California poppies don’t get you high, they didn’t start historical opium wars, they are NOT the Helen of Troy of flowers … they are just pretty. But they ARE easier to have in your garden, if you are concerned with matters of legality, intoxication, and potential addiction.

addicted to the poppy! photo by Joseph Tychonievich

Because it is very easy to get addicted to the poppy! Plant her if you DARE!!!

A very very very special thanks to my lovely blogfriends Linda Lehmusvirta, Joseph Tychonievich, and Susan Morrison for their very generous and beautiful photographic contributions!

XOXO Your Germinatrix

8 Responses to “The Poppy and The Poseur”

  1. No one can tell it quite like you! Seductive words worthy of such a sensual flower!

  2. I’ve dared! Linda Lehmusvirta shared seeds of the red-and-purple ones pictured here in her photos — luscious! Sadly, they didn’t return the next year. Apparently I use too much bark mulch for reseeding to occur. Ah well, it was heavenly while it lasted.

  3. Ooohh. I swooned, I trembled, Germi, thank you. Now if I can only get the darn seeds scattered. I am so behind!

  4. I’m moving to the perfect zone for growing opium poppies. Plant them in the fall or winter in zone 17 and by spring they are as big as shrubs! I can’t wait. I love them all so I will grow every type of poppy that does well here. I’d even grow the oriental poppies but I think they do better with more of a winter chill.

  5. lol have you read Amitav Ghosh’s newly released book River of Smoke on the opium wars? Fascinating, though a heavy read.

    Love all those lovely blooms.

  6. A wonderfully lush tribute to one of my favorite flowers!

  7. What a beautiful article with lovely photos to match! It would certainly wet one’s appetite to plant these striking flowers!

    The issue I have with Poppies is that the flowers themselves are so short lived. You did point out the seedpods which were very appealing! How long do those last for?

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