Nature Bulletin No. 758 May 30, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
In Flanders' fields, the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place ...
Those poignant lines, from a poem by John McCrae, inspired the
selection of a red poppy as the symbol honoring those who fought and
died in the first World War. We contribute to the aid of all disabled
veterans by wearing a poppy on Decoration Day -- today.
Veterans of battles in France at Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood and
Cantigny, in 1918, saw poppies growing profusely in the wheat fields:
the Corn Poppy so common in Europe and so often mentioned in
English literature -- "all silk and flame, a scarlet cup". Its name derives
from the custom wherein wheat is called corn ' in England and corn is
known as maize or Indian corn.
The Poppy Family is made up of some 400 species of herbaceous plants
and a few shrubs. They are widely scattered in various parts of the
world and characterized by a milky or colored sap, as well as by showy
flowers. In addition to the true poppies, it includes the prickly poppies,
the Matilija poppy (often eight feet tall), the bushy tree poppy in
California, the low-growing California poppies, and some familiar
wildflowers such as our bloodroot.
There are at least 100 species of the true poppies, most of them native
to Mediterranean regions. All have large, silky or papery, brightly
colored petals surrounding a center with many stamens.
Poppies, because of their spectacular flowers, have long been popular
garden plants. What tulips do in spring, the poppies do in midsummer --
provide a riot of vivid colors. In addition to the kinds with single
flowers ranging from pure white through pink and rose to yellow,
orange and scarlet, there are plumelike carnation-flowered poppies with
fringed petals, and the peonylike double varieties. All of them have
been obtained by selection and cross-breeding from four basic species:
two perennials -the Iceland and the Oriental poppies -- and two annuals
-- the Corn poppy, and the famous (or infamous) Opium poppy.
The Iceland poppy, so abundant and colorful in arctic regions during
their brief summers, has a cluster of compound leaves from which arise
several leafless stalks bearing red, orange, yellow, or white flowers.
The Oriental poppy, native to Mediterranean regions and Persia, has
stiff hairy stems often 4 feet tall, and long, deeply lobed leaves. Its huge
flowers -6 inches or more across -- have six scarlet petals marked with
black at the base. They are followed by fruit capsules containing
enormous numbers of tiny seeds. There are cultivated varieties with
flowers of several other colors. The European Corn poppy has finely
lobed, hairy leaves and much smaller flowers that may be white, purple,
red, or scarlet.
The Opium poppy, native to the north coast of the Mediterranean where
it grows wild, is similar in appearance to the oriental poppy but far
different in its importance to mankind. The milky juice or latex
obtained from its large seed capsules, before they ripen, becomes
commercial opium after it is collected and dried. Several varieties arc
extensively grown for that purpose in Turkey, the Balkans, Egypt,
Persia, India, and other parts of southeast Asia.
Elsewhere it is grown for its oily edible seeds which, strangely, are free
from any narcotic poison. They are chewed, used in cakes, sprinkled on
bread or buns and, mixed with honey, make delicious filling for
macaroons. Opium and its by-products, such as morphine, are a boon
and a curse to us.
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Update: June 2012