Wildflower of the Week: Opium Poppies

Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, in one of its many guises (Photo: publicphoto.org)

We’re making opium poppies our Wildflower of the Week due to an article on page 11 of this week’s Carmel Pine Cone concerning an alert Carmel police officer who discovered an opium poppy growing on a city easement along the side of a Carmel street. The offending plant, you’ll be glad to know, was seized before it could further damage the town’s moral character. After the plant tested positive for morphine, down at the station, it was renditioned to a federal crime lab for “further analysis.” The article concludes by noting that “it’s unknown who planted the illegal poppy.” Your tax dollars at work.

While we hesitate to risk setting off an opium hysteria by pointing this out: opium poppies, while not a native plant, are in fact naturalized in Monterey County and much of the rest of coastal California (see Calflora.org), meaning that they are quite capable of growing pretty much anywhere they please without the need for anyone to plant them. We’ve often seen them growing as a weed along the Big Sur Coast and in Carmel Valley. Nevertheless, there are still far more opium poppies growing in the gardens of little old ladies in Carmel and Pacific Grove than there are in the wild.

Although cultivating opium poppies or possessing any part of an opium poppy other than the seeds* is a federal felony, people are, mostly unwittingly, growing them all over the place. Seed companies will even sell you the seeds, with growing instructions, and never warn you that following their advice can get you 20 years in the federal pen. The seed companies do not, of course, call them opium poppies; preferring names like Breadseed Poppy and Common Garden Poppy. Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy is, quite simply, a very beautiful and popular garden flower – and has been for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

And just to make life harder for the poppy police, horticulturists have, over the years, developed dozens of varieties of P. somniferum looking very, very different from one another – though all are beautiful. Some are even sold under different species names, which could certainly complicate prosecution. Will the DEA call in “lumper” botanists to testify that a given plant is indeed P. somniferum, while the defense calls “splitter” experts to argue that the plant should be referred to a species unlisted in the federal schedule of controlled substances? Biology is so maddeningly uncooperative with things like drug laws.

The bottom line, though, is that while the War on Drugs has turned vast numbers of gardeners into career criminals, enforcement, to date, has been focused mainly on those who have attracted police attention by appearing to have some knowledge that their poppies are more than just bright blossoms. Guess we’ll have to be extra careful to thoroughly weed our garden from now on!

Is this Carmel’s future if the pernicious poppies aren’t stopped?

Many years ago, Michael Pollan wrote a long, excellent and in-depth article on this topic. Read it here.**

*And, yes, those were legal P. somniferum seeds you ate on your bagel this morning – and, yes eating even one or two poppyseed bagels can result in a positive drug test (although new testing techniques are supposed to avoid these “false positives,” we wouldn’t count on it).

** Unfortunately, the Pollan article has now disappeared behind a paywall.

3 Responses to Wildflower of the Week: Opium Poppies

  1. gayle says:

    I can always count on an article that is informative with a flair for humor. Well written. Thank you

  2. mercadeo internet says:

    Poppies are beautiful plants and are a show piece for any garden. However, they do contain alkaloids that are a narcotic. It may be illegal in your area to grow opium poppies. Check your local laws. It is definitely illegal to harvest the raw opium these plants produce .I am selling these seeds to you strictly for beautification and the decorative and cooking aspects of them. Once you start your own garden of these beauties, you will never need to buy seeds again!

  3. xasauan says:

    We rescued the above comment from the spam filter because it’s such a great example of how the “seed loophole” is used. At least this guy, unlike some of the major seed companies, warns that growing opium poppies “may be illegal in your area.” Don’t bother checking “local laws,” though. If you live in the United States it is a federal offense. As we don’t wish to promote his business we’ve removed the contact info.

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