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10 Neat Things: Papaver poppies

1. Papaver rhoeas.

Corn poppies or field poppies are quite common in Europe; in fact, they are known as a weed. Papaver poppies quickly grow in any disturbed land and were noticed by First World War Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae growing over the graves of soldiers. He wrote the poem In Flanders Fields, giving Canada an enduring symbol, the Remembrance Day poppy.

2. Moina Michael.

McCrae had the poem published in British magazine Punch in 1915. He died in 1918 of pneumonia, but American Moina Michael, inspired by his enormously popular poem, wrote one of her own called We Shall Keep the Faith. She conceived the idea of selling silk poppies to raise money for veterans of the war. The National American Legion adopted the poppy as its official symbol of remembrance in 1920, then a Frenchwoman named Anna Guérin organized the first American national Poppy Day in 1921. Well, at least they were all inspired by a Canadian.

3. Symbol of sleep and death.

Papaver poppies have a long history as a symbol of sleep and death. There are examples from Greek and Roman mythology. Even as recently as Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900: the characters find themselves drowsy in a field of poppies and start to fall asleep. Of course, those would be more like opium poppies.

4. Papaver somniferum.

Cultivation of opium poppies dates as far back as 4000 BCE. It probably originated in Sumer, just north of the Persian Gulf. To harvest opium from the plants, one must wait until the petals fall off then score the bulbous seed pod while it is still green. Milky sap will ooze out and turn black. The black stuff is crude opium.

5. Poppy seeds.

The bagel topping and muffin inclusion comes from the same plant. Although you can eat the seeds of P. rhoeas, it is P. somniferum that is the source of most poppy seeds you eat. And yes, eating a poppyseed muffin can give you a positive drug test.

6. Illegal in Canada.

You can’t grow P. somniferum in Canada; it’s illegal. Technically. Though I personally have seen specimens and some seed companies sell different cultivars. In fact, there are cultivars available that don’t produce much opium while still producing the seeds. It’s kind of like the difference between species of cannabis in hemp production. Cannabis ruderalis has very little of the psychoactive drug in it, but it was forbidden to grow it in Canada until 1998.

7. Papaver orientale.

This perennial poppy is a popular garden plant. It puts on quite a show in early summer, with a single plant being three to four feet across. One issue with it is that after blooming, the leaves die down for the rest of the year. This helped them survive the drought in their native Asia but leaves gardeners with a gaping hole in July.

8. ’Patty’s Plum’.

P. orientale ‘Patty’s Plum’ was rescued from the compost heap. A chance seedling, it was noticed because of its beautiful colour, which is described as damson. The gardeners who found it propagated it and the rest is history.

9. Papaver nudicaule.

Sometimes known as Iceland poppies, these pretty little flowers are from all over the subpolar areas of the world, but not from Iceland.

10. Papaver californicum vs. Eschscholzia californica.

Two genera, two species, both from California. Papaver californicum is known as fire poppy in common parlance, though. If you want to grow California poppies, look for Eschschlozia californicum, which isn’t a poppy at all, though it is in the same family, botanically speaking.

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