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Pretty, potent poppies

July 11, 2004

In mid-March, I was delighted to receive a new plant catalog that included two free packets of seed. One packet produced tiny round carrots, the other was for poppies (Papavar spp).

The packet said the variety was an annual and the picture looked like P. somniferum - the poppy of the Bible. This poppy (or its kin) was the "gall" of the scriptures, offered to relieve pain to those suffering during crucifixion.

"Plant in earliest spring" the packet ordered. Since the first day of spring was but a day away, I headed for the Bible garden and liberally sprinkled half the seed. I saved the other half, since my previous efforts to seed poppies in place had not been successful.

This sowing was successful beyond my wildest dreams. Soon tiny, dusty, bluish-green sprouts began to appear everywhere. The seedlings grew tall and sturdy. By June, the plump ovoid buds began to spring open - revealing blowzy Pepto-Bismol-pink flowers, a little flamboyant but beautiful.

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Four weeks later, the fallen flower petals had carpeted the ground with pink. Now the pods - some call them pepperpots - are slowing turning brown and soon the plants will be ready to be pulled from the ground. I will reserve a few and collect their seeds for next year's display. The rest will be reserved for cooking.

The true opium poppy, Papavar somniferum is a lovely single flower appearing in pale shades of lavender and pink. And within that beauty lies the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the plant. One author described it to be like a flame that can both warm and burn. Substances derived from the sap or latex of the plant - codeine, morphine and heroin - can relieve terrible pain, but then prove so addicting as to cause further pain.

Since ancient times, from Egypt to Assyria to Greece - the power of the opium poppy, Papavar somiferum, has been well known. According to myth, the poppy was created by Demeter so she could find sleep after her daughter Persephone was kidnapped to the Underworld and the Earth experienced a year of never-ending winter. After a deal was struck, Persephone was allowed to walk the earth for six months of the year but she has to return underground for the remaining months and winter covers the earth.

Poppy juice was used for many purposes, from relieving headaches to helping colicky children to bringing sleep. Blessed were the children whose mothers chose to treat colic with the Norse remedy of benign dill water, rather than the more potent poppy juice.

It was also used as an early anesthetic. According to one early account, a drink of poppy juice was give to prepare subjects for surgery - "to make a man slepen-en whyle men kerve him."

The opium wars of the 1790s were caused directly by England's lucrative trade in opium sold to China. Poppy products were used as a bludgeon by England to get China to open its doors to free trade.

Opium and its by-products were favorite ingredients in many of the popular patent medicines of the Victorian era. That was a period when artists of all stripes sampled a variety of drugs, believing drug use made them more creative. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes was a well-known devotee of cocaine, product of a South American plant.

No Victorian lady's medicine chest would have been complete without a bottle of laudanum (a tincture of opium said to have invented by the medieval physician, Paracelsus ) that was available in every drug store. Laudanum was given to revive flagging spirits and other feminine "weaknesses" as well as for digestive upsets, coughs and a laundry list of other complaints. During the hundred or more years of popular use, especially by low-income people, little mention seem to been made that opium products might, in fact, become addicting.

Today, raising opium poppies is big business. It provides important income for developing countries, yet creates havoc in the countries of its final destination. The two annual poppies that are most often grown for culinary purposes are the P. somniferum and the P. rhoeus. P. rhoeus is the red, single-flowered poppy that we have come to call the corn poppy or Flanders poppy. It is easy to grow, but the bright red color makes it a little difficult to place effectively in the garden. The perennial poppies, Iceland and Oriental, have little history but are useful ornamental plants.

You might want to grow a few annual poppies in your garden to remind yourself that the balance of good and evil in the garden, as in life, is ever a challenge.

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