I once toured a large Memphis garden that had frilly pink poppies growing in the rose garden about the same height as the rose bushes. The lady who owned the garden told me she collected the dried seed pods every year at the end of the season and shook them like pepper shakers throughout the rose garden with beautiful results.

Mention poppies, and all sorts of images come to mind. My earliest memory of a poppy is the paper one I was given to wear on Veterans Day. An elementary school teacher read us the World War I poem, “In Flanders Fields.”


The Tin Man, Scarecrow and I watched Dorothy, Toto, and the Cowardly Lion fall asleep among poppies in “The Wizard of Oz.”

About the same time, I ate my first poppy seed roll. Years later I heard about an athlete whose drug test showed traces of opioids after he ate poppy seed pastries the day before.

The poppy is a wildflower in the Middle East and was first cultivated for opium by the ancient Sumerians over 5000 years ago. They called it Hul Gil, the “joy plant.” Gardeners today prefer the joy provided by the poppy’s beautiful flowers.

Our Mid-South growing conditions are more supportive of poppies as annuals than as perennials. The perennial “wood poppy” that grows well here is not in the poppy genus (Papaver) although it is in the larger family. Biennial poppies, plants that bloom their second year, are the least desirable because they are unlikely to survive their first hot, humid, Memphis summer. Iceland poppies and California poppies don’t sound like a good bet either.

The Flanders poppy, Papaver rhoeas, is generally a simple red flower called corn poppy or field poppy. An English vicar, Reverend William Wilks, developed the fancier “Shirley Poppies” from this species in the late 1800s. Oriental poppies (P. orientale) are perennials that will likely perform as annuals here. Their large flowers with dark centers are more than worth the price of a seed packet, but the bareroot plants sold by some companies are probably not worth the extra expense.

The common opium poppy is P. somniferum. Notice the species name has the same sleepy root as somnolent and Sominex (a nonnarcotic sleep aid, no connection to poppies). The majority of poppy seeds for cooking come from this species. A typical garden doesn’t produce enough seed to make opium, and the poppies in Oz were magic.

I shopped for poppy seeds online at Burpee, Park Seeds, and monticelloshop.org which sells seeds from Thomas Jefferson’s historic garden. I watched for the phrase “blooms first year” to avoid buying a biennial. I ordered “Park’s Peony Mix Poppy Seeds,” an assortment of opium poppies. When they arrive, I’ll scratch up a bare patch of flower bed, sprinkle the tiny seeds, pat them down lightly, and water very gently. With luck, I’ll enjoy double flowers in shades of pink next spring, and their “pepper shaker” seed pods will produce new plants each year.

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