W&N watercolour on Bockingford 300gsm
All species of poppies are attractive and most are cultivated as ornamental plants. A few species have other uses, principally as sources of drugs and foods. The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is so widely used, for both drugs and food, that its worldwide production is monitored by international agencies. It yields opium and opiates, poppy seeds for use in cooking and baking, and poppy seed oil for culinary and other uses, and is also cultivated as an ornamental plant. In South Africa we plant poppies in April for a stunning display in winter and spring.
The Opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is the only species of Papaveraceae that is an agricultural crop grown on a large scale. Other species, Papaver rhoeas and Papaver argemone, are important agricultural weeds, and may be mistaken for the crop. The plant is a variable annual, forming a long-lived soil seed bank that can germinate when the soil is disturbed, not unlike our local Cosmos flowers (in South Africa).
Its origin is not known for certain. As with many such plants, the area of origin is often ascribed by Americans to Europe, and by northern Europeans to southern Europe. The European Garden Flora suggests that it is ‘Eurasia and North Africa’; in other words, the lands where agriculture has been practiced since the earliest times. It has had an old symbolism and association with agricultural fertility.