Poppies belong to a small family of flowering plants called the Papaveraceae. Poppies are annual, biennial, or perennial herbs, although three New World genera (Bocconia, Dendromecon, and Romneya) are woody shrubs or small trees. The leaves are alternate, lack stipules, and are often lobed or deeply dissected. The flowers are usually solitary, bisexual, showy, and crumpled in the bud. The fruit is a many-seeded capsule that opens by a ring of pores or by valves. One of the most characteristic features of the family is that when cut, the stems or leaves ooze a milky, yellow, orange, or occasionally clear latex from special secretory canals.
The family consists of 23 genera and about 250 species that are primarily distributed throughout northern temperate and arctic regions. The true poppies, which belong to the genus Papaver, are found mostly in Europe, much of Asia, the Arctic, and Japan. Only one true poppy occurs naturally in the United States. The only true poppy in the Southern Hemisphere is P. aculeatum, which occurs in South Africa and Australia. In North America, members of the poppy family are most common in the Arctic and in the west. Only two members of the poppy family are native to eastern North America. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a common spring flower of cool forests. When the underground stem (rhizome) or roots of bloodroot are broken, they exude a red juice. The celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) is the other native poppy of eastern North America, occurring in rich woods.
In North America it is the west, especially California and adjacent states, that has the highest diversity of poppies. Ten genera of poppies occur in western North America. Perhaps the most interesting of these are the Californian tree poppies in the genus Romneya. These spectacular plants have attractive gray leaves and large (3.9-5.1 in/10-13 cm across), fragrant, white flowers with an inner ring of bright yellow stamens. R. coulteri grows among sun-baked rocks and in gullies of parts of southern California and is most abundant in the mountains southeast of Los Angeles; its fleshy stems can reach heights of 9.8 ft (3 m)—more the size of a shrub than a tree. The other, less well known, genus of tree poppy in California is Dendromecon, which is one of the few truly woody shrubs of the poppy family. D. harfordii is an erect, evergreen shrub that reaches 9.8 ft (3 m) and is found only on the islands of Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa off the coast of California. The tree celandines (Bocconia) of Central America truly reach tree size, growing to a maximum height of 23 ft (7 m). Californian poppies, which belong to the genus Eschscholzia, are restricted to western North America where they are generally found in arid regions in and around California. Many of the Californian poppies are widely cultivated. Prickly poppies (Agremone) are common in western North America.
Many poppies are highly prized as garden ornamentals. Poppies are admired for their delicate yet boldly colored flowers, which may be white, yellow, orange, or red. The blue poppies of the genus Meconopsis are special favorites of gardeners because no other genus of poppies contains species with blue flowers, making them something of a beautiful oddity among poppy fanciers. Among the more widely cultivated species are the Iceland poppy (P. nudicaule), whose natural distribution is circumboreal, the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) which is the state flower of California, the common poppy (P. dubium) of Europe, the oriental poppy (P. orientale) from Armenia and Iran, the corn poppy (P. rhoeas) of Europe, and many others, including many of those previously discussed from western North America.
The most famous and economically important member of the poppy family is the opium poppy (P. somniferum). The opium poppy has been cultivated for thousands of years and naturalized in many places. Its origin is uncertain, but it is believed to have come from Asia Minor. Crude opium contains the addictive drugs morphine (11%) as well as codeine (1%). Morphine is an important painkiller and heroin is made from morphine. Controlled, commercial supplies for medicinal use are produced mostly in the Near East. The Balkans, the Near East, Southeast Asia, Japan, and China all produce opium and have long histories of its use.
The opium poppy is an annual plant and so must be sown each year. Opium is collected once the plant has flowered and reached the fruiting stage. The urn-shaped seed capsules are slit by hand, generally late in the evening. The milky latex oozes out during the night, coagulates, and is then scraped from the capsule in the morning. The coagulated latex is dried and kneaded into balls of crude opium, which is then refined. Because the cutting of individual capsules is labor-intensive, opium production is generally restricted to areas with inexpensive labor.
Poppies have a number of lesser uses. The seeds of opium poppy are commonly used in baking; the seeds do not contain opium. The corn poppy is cultivated in Europe for the oil in its seeds, which compares favorably with olive oil. In Turkey and Armenia the heads of oriental poppies are considered a great delicacy when eaten green. The taste has been described as acrid and hot.
The poppy was immortalized as a symbol of remembrance of the supreme sacrifice paid by those who fought in the First World War by Colonel John McCrae in the poem entitled In Flanders Fields, which begins with the lines: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row." A red poppy now symbolizes the sacrifice of those who died in the two World Wars and is worn on Remembrance Day, November 11, which commemorates the end of World War I.
Grey-Wilson, C. Poppies: A Guide to the Poppy Family in the Wild and in Cultivation. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1993.
Heywood, Vernon H., ed. Flowering Plants of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Les C. Cwynar