by germinatrix | December 8th, 2011
I have had a long-standing love affair with poppies.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Because it is very easy to get addicted to the poppy! Plant her if you DARE!!!
XOXO Your Germinatrix