GENUS:  Papaver
SPECIES:  P. nudicaule-Iceland poppy. P. rhoeas-Shirley or corn poppy; blooms spring and summer. P. orientale-huge, bowl-shaped blossoms; perennial
FAMILY:  Papaveraceae
BLOOMS:  late spring, summer
TYPE:  annual, perennial
DESCRIPTION:  Iceland poppy is a tender perennial, usually grown as an annual. The leaves are finely dissected, fernlike, and hairy. The large blossoms {3 inches across} come in orange, red, pink, rose, yellow, cream, and white. Oriental poppy has huge blossoms-sometimes as much as 12 inches across-with a black center. Plants grow 2 to 4 feet tall. Corn or Shirley poppy is usually grown as an annual and reaches a height of 2 to 5 feet. Colors include red, orange, and pink in both single and double forms.
CULTIVATION:  Disliking hot, humid weather, poppies do best in cool climates in alkaline soil that is well drained but not too rich. Water them moderately and place them in full sun. Keep blossoms picked to stimulate further flowering. Set out plants in early spring or sow seeds in late spring for bloom in late summer or early fall.
Poppies have been grown for beauty, magic, and medicine for centuries. Egyptians felt that poppies were a necessary part of funerals and burial rituals and were essential for assuring life after death. Dried poppy petals have been found in tombs dating back 3,000 years.
Early Romans used juice from the poppy plant for witchcraft. It was thought to be particularly effective in easing the pains of love.
Ancient Greeks thought that poppies were a sign of fertility and placed garlands of poppy blossoms at the shrines of Demeter, goddess of fertility, and Diana, goddess of the hunt. The Greeks also used poppy seeds as a love charm and for seasoning in breads and drinks. Poppy seeds were thought to bring strength and health, and Greek Olympic athletes were given mixtures of poppy seeds, honey, and wine.
During the Middle Ages, tea made from the dried petals was used to calm children suffering from colic or whooping cough. Poppy syrup was used in Elizabethan England to relieve pain and induce sleep. Tea made from the poppy plant was thought to be good for rheumatism, particularly if it was mixed with white wine.
Country girls in Europe played fortune-telling games with petals from poppies. Placing a poppy petal in her lover’s hand, a girl would hit it with the edge of her own hand. If a loud popping noise resulted, it meant he was true to her. If the petal broke silently, it meant that he had been unfaithful.
Poppy is the English flower for August and the Chinese floral emblem for the month of December. It is the symbol of consolation and denotes sleep, rest, and repose.
The corn poppy, P. rhoeas, is native to the Mediterranean areas of Europe, does not contain opium, and is not a source of narcotic drugs, as are the Oriental poppies. The plant does contain a substance, rhoeadine, that is nonpoisonous and has been used as a mild sedative. A concoction made from this plant was used to prevent wrinkled skin. The petals can be placed in boiling water and steeped for about ten minutes, strained, and stored to be used as a skin freshener.
Today the greatest culinary demand for poppies is for their seeds, which are tasty baked in breads and cakes.
The flowers provide a rather unstable dye but one that is suitable for coloring wines and other drinks, as well as inks and medicines.
The corn poppy is most famous as an emblem that commemorates those who died in wars. This custom began after World War l when thousands of poppies bloomed on the battlefields of Flanders. Not to detract from the magic of this occurrence, but poppies had grown in Flanders fields for many centuries. During the war, the earth had been so trampled down that nothing was able to grow. Seeds of the poppy lay dormant but viable during this time, and when peace returned to the land and the grass and flowers were allowed to grow once more, the poppies burst forth in great profusion. Actual soil counts were done, and it was found that as many as 2,500 poppy seeds could be found in a single square foot. The magical wave of corn poppies was immortalized by the poem by John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields.”
In 1921 England celebrated Poppy Day. On this day, thousands of artificial poppies were made and sold to families of war veterans.
The origin of the genus name, Papaver, could be from the word pap, which is ground food given to infants. Pap often included juice from the poppy plant to help the babies sleep. Another possibility is that papaver is the word the Celts used to describe the sound made by the Roman soldiers eating poppy seeds. The species name rhoeas means “to fall,” for the petals of this plant fall off quite easily.
Shirley poppy is a hybrid developed by a vicar from Shirley, England. Reverend William Wilkes was not only an accomplished plant breeder, but also an enthusiastic rural naturalist.
If treated correctly, poppies make a good cut flower. Full buds that have straight stems should be cut in the evening and submerged up to their necks in hot water.

The popular little California poppy is of the same family but a different genus. Its bright orange and yellow faces light up the fields and roadsides along the West Coast and can be found growing in gardens in nearly every part of the country.