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Bread Poppies

For The Heirloom Gardener magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

I'm a student of Civil War plant medicines and my program, "Herbal Medicines of the Civil War" is popular in flower and garden show and historical conference circuits. Every time I present the program, (which includes "wounded" in-costume soldiers with lots of stage blood and realistic battle wounds), the question comes up regarding what the Civil War doctor used for controlling pain. That leads to a discuss of poppies, which played a critical roll in pain medications of that time.

Poppies are the source of opium and various derivatives of opium are still in use today. Morphine, from opium, is used to combat severe pain, and the semi-synthetic drugs, oxycodone (under the trade name Percodan), as well as Dilaudid, Vicodin and Immoblion, are all of immense pharmaceutical worth, all coming originally from derivatives of the poppy.

So what, you may be wondering, does the opium poppy have to do with bread poppies? Opium poppy is Papaver somniferum. Bread poppy is Papaver somniferum. You will find P. somniferum seed in bird seed mixes (where it's often called "maw" seed), you'll find it in little jars in the grocery store baking section. It's the seed found in poppyseed salad dressing and the seed that is ground and added to sauces for flavoring and thickening. You can buy poppyseed oil for cooking and poppy seed heads are available for decorative uses from many florists. They are all Papaver somniferum,

These amazing poppies vary in color from reddish purple to white, from lavender and pink to deep red and can be single or double. All produce edible poppy seed, but it's not from the seed that the opiates come. The medicinal part is the sap, the white, sticky juice of the poppy seed head after the petals have fallen.

Poppies were cultivated by the Egyptians, thousands of years ago. Also by the Romans and across India and Asia, and came to the Americas with the first colonists. The crushed seed heads, combined with chamomile, were used as a poultice, the petals were made into syrup and even the young, green leaves were cooked and eaten as a spring greens, much like people eat poke greens today.

Several seed companies list bread seed poppy as a "new, low-morphine (very minute amount) poppy to grow for culinary seed." Often in seed catalogs you will see Papaver paeoniflorum listed as bread seed poppy. It's not an official, correct botanical classification, as it is still P. somniferum. It's a widely grown plant and gardeners often don't know that they are actually growing the opium poppy in their garden.

Friends of mine who are in government jobs tell me they have to avoid eating anything with poppy seed, even poppy seed rolls, poppy seed dressing or cakes which contain even a small amount of the seed. The random drug tests they are subjected to, will show up as positive for drug use if they have eaten poppy seeds within the last ten days. Otherwise, though, poppy seed is safe to eat for most people and there is only miniscule amounts of the opiates in the seed.

So that brings up the question of whether you can legally grow poppies in your own garden. There are occasional news stories about grandmotherly types who have discovered the local police invading their yards, ripping out poppy plants and threatening to arrest the gardener.

Thomas Jefferson grew poppies in his gardens at Monticello. The seed descendants from his plants were sold at the gift shop of Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants until 1991. But a drug bust at the nearby University of Virginia panicked the Board of Directors and they removed the poppies and burned the seeds. It was a shame because within the law which relates to poppy growing, there is a clause regarding intent. The gardener has to be proven to have intended to cultivate poppies for the manufacture of opium, and obviously the gift shop was not intending to encourage opium cultivation. Still, to be safe, they erred on the side of caution.

The cultivation of Papaver somniferum is banned in the US under the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942. Amateur horticulturists, however, continue to grow the flowers ornamentally in their gardens. (It's worth checking local regulations in your state if you arenervous or in doubt).

If you are planning to grow poppies in your garden, you are probably safe if you grow a small bed of poppies. Use them for color in the garden, enjoy the seeds in your cooking, and in most parts of the U.S., no one will bother you. But if you grow an acre of poppies, or start slitting the seed heads and collecting the sap, you are almost certain of landing in jail.

Shirley poppies, by contrast, are not a controlled substance. Papaver rhoeas, the Shirley poppy, give beautiful color to the garden, although the seeds aren't considered edible. The same with Oriental poppies, European corn poppies, Iceland poppies and California poppies. All of those are fine, and legal, to grow, but the seeds aren't generally considered edible.

If you buy poppy seed in the grocery store it is likely Papaver somniferum 'Hungarian Blue' which has slate-colored seed. Most of the poppy seed sold in stores and used in commercial bakeries, comes from the Netherlands. The seeds contain very little of the narcotic drug and you could chew up a bunch of the seeds (which have a good taste) and not feel any effects. It is, however, still the same opium poppy.

You can plant the seed from the grocery store and they will likely grow. For growing any poppies, they require just a few basics in order to thrive.

Choose a place where the seed can be planted early in the year and not disturbed, and a spot in full, all day sun. In the Midwest, it's best to plant poppies in late fall to early winter. I've tried planting both in October-November, and in February-March, and the earlier planted ones do better, by far. Plant the seed where you want them to grow as poppies don't transplant well. (If you aren't sure when to plant poppies in your area, plant half your seed before Christmas and the other half of the seed in early February. Plant them in two different plots in order to tell which time of planting worked best for you). The biggest mistake people make when trying to grow poppies, is planting them too late in the year. April and May is too late as that's when they are getting ready to bloom.

Scratch up the soil and mix the poppy seed with some sand so as to not get it too close together, or put it in a salt shaker and scatter the seed through the shaker top. Press the seed down, but don't cover it, just enough that the birds won't see it. If the seed are covered with soil, they probably won't germinate. Then simply leave them alone. In Zone 6 and 7 you will probably seed the tiny seedlings appear in January or February. Or you may not even notice them until late February when you see the frosty blue-green leaf rosettes of the plants. Along in late April they will spring upward with flower stalks and by May, your garden will be alive with the color of poppies.

The flowers last from three to five days, on average. If you want to use them as cut flowers, cut the flowers in early morning and with a match, singe the cut end of the stem, to seal off the loss of sap, then put them in a vase of water.

Poppy seed heads are a lot like salt shakers. Once the flower petals have fallen off, in a few days time the seed head will have turned a brownish-gray and dried. You have to be careful when cutting these seed stalks, because even slight nudge of the seed head and the tiny seeds will scatter on the ground (where they will come up next spring at the right time).

If you are collecting seed for use in baking, cut the seed stalks before they are completely dry and turn them upside down in a paper grocery bag (make sure to tape the seams in the bottom, or else the seed will spill out). Let the seed heads dry upside down for a couple of weeks, then shake them into the grocery bag. They are now ready to pour into a storage container for use in baking during the winter.

Poppyseed Dressing

1/2 cup sugar 1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard 1/4 cup light olive oil 1/2 cup vegetable oil 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar 2 tablespoons cup grated onion 1 tablespoon poppy seeds 1/4 teaspoon salt, optional

Mix ingredients together in bowl, stirring or whisking to combine. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week (if you substitute dry onion flakes for the grated onion, the dressing will last several weeks in the refrigerator). Serve over any greens salad, as well as over salads containing fruit such as this: 3 cups small spinach leaves, torn, 1 ripe pear, seeded and diced, 1 tart apple, seeded and diced, 1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese and 1/8 cup walnut pieces. Toss with poppyseed dressing.

Jim Long is the author of 24 books on herb and gardening subjects. His gardens and books can be seen at Questions or comments always welcome at


Becca said...

Thanks for a great article on the bread poppy. I just had one come up mysteriously in my garden. I let it stay because I enjoyed the silver cast of the leaves. Now, I am reaping the rewards of my leniency! You can see pictures of it.


Sarah said...

So--is it too late to leave a comment/question? I just bought some beautiful poppy seeds (from Renee's Garden) but I suspected that it was already too late to plant them. Any thoughts about how to store them until planting them next fall--should I just pop them in the freezer or are they fine on their own?

Gloria said...

What a great article. I have always enjoyed growing the big orange oriental poppy. But just a few for the seeds and a bit of interest in the garden.