Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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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