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Perky Poppies

By Audrey Stallsmith

papaver somniferum

Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday. . .

William Shakespeare, Othello

For such a breezy, fluttery flower, the poppy carries some heavy baggage. The Shirley or rhoeas variety is the most familiar. But any discussion of the family Papaver must, of necessity, be dominated by that most notorious of its members--somniferum.

Better known as the opium poppy, that flower is now considered a curse by some. But its ability to dull agony and promote sleep was once a blessing to sufferers who had few other painkillers or sedatives available. Somniferum derives from Somnus, the mythological Roman god of sleep, son of night, and brother of death.

Its principal alkaloid, morphine, takes its name from Somnus' son, Morpheus. He reportedly clutched a bunch of poppies and summoned up dreams.

So Keats could write, "ere the poppy throws/ Around my bed its lulling charities." Or Donne could say of death that "poppy or charms can make us sleep as welle. . ."

Laudanum, often swilled by insomniacs in old books, was a mixture of opium, water, and alcohol, but seems to have been a respectable sleep aid. I suspect that it probably produced as many addicts, however, as the infamous opium dens mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The white poppy, also called Mawseed, was most often used for opium production. So it stands, in the Language of Flowers, for sleep, dreaminess, or oblivion. But it can also mean either "my bane" or "my antidote."

This ambivalence about the poppy is common. Gerard admitted that it "mitigateth all kinds of pains," but added that "it leaveth behinde oftentimes a mischiefe worse than the disease it selfe." He recommended that opium not be used except "in extreme necessitie." Not only might it promote addiction but "opium too plentifully taken doth also bring death." Drayton also warns of "henbane, poppy, hemlock here/ Procuring deadly sleeping. . ."

In small doses, opium is a stimulant rather than a narcotic, and was fed to tired horses. It is extracted by slashing the unripe poppy heads and allowing the milky juice to harden. Opium derives its name from the Greek opus or "juice."

There is some debate over whether or not it is legal to grow opium poppies in this country. Gardeners have been doing it for years, the flowers being larger and more striking than most other papaver species. Some simply know them as "lettuce" or "heirloom" poppies.

Many seed companies carry them, with the double or fringed varieties being respectively known as paeoniflorum and laciniatum. This probably does not worry the DEA overly much, since it takes between three to five thousand poppy heads to produce a pound of opium!

Somniferum is not the only member of the papaver family to be associated with death. Ever since John McCrae's "In Flander's Fields" spoke of where "the poppies blow/ Between the crosses,row on row," the field poppy (papaver rhoeas) has represented the blood of fallen soldiers. McCrae concluded, "If you break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields." So those raising money for veterans' groups will often distribute scarlet paper poppies.

The modern Shirley varieties are descendants of this wilding that robbed nutrients from European wheat fields. Its petals, however, added a pretty color to syrups.

Other poppies include the perennial Oriental and Iceland varieties as well as the California annual. A certain news magazine, running an article on opium poppies, mistakenly pictured a field of the California variety instead. I was probably not the only amused gardener from whom the editors heard. I just hope the piece did not cause a run on the innocent wild eschscholzias!

As with so many plants, opium poppies can be good or bad, depending on how they are used. Without them, we would not have the morphine and codeine so essential in hospitals today. But neither would we have heroin addicts--heroin being a stronger form of morphine.

Painkillers of any sort offer only a surface solution. Just as doctors must discover the causes of the pain to cure it, we will need to get at the causes of drug abuse to end it.

Papaver somniferum image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden