Young hippie woman running through a field of poppies

The Popularity of the Poppy

Few flowers are the main ingredient in both muffins and drugs–except poppies.

Over the years, this flower’s bizarre applications in a wide variety of fields have made it one of the most interesting flowers to study. From ancient times to modern culture, poppies have maintained a starring role in the flower industry. It all starts in the ancient land of Sumer.

The Plant that Launched a Thousand Ships

Around 3,400 BC, ancient Sumerians started cultivating the poppy flower to use as medicine. It became so important in the culture that there are numerous carved works of art depicting poppy flowers, which is how scientists have put such a precise date on such an ancient event. Over time, other countries took note of its raging popularity, and Sumer quickly started to ship it all over the world on the Silk Road

Even though the poppy remained popular for thousands of years, nothing particularly exciting happened with poppies until the late 18th century, when the Opium Wars broke out in China. France, Britain, and the United States fought on Chinese soil over illegal imports of poppy seeds from India to China. Although the European nations had agreed in writing to stop exporting poppies to China, they were still illegally dropping them off in India and helping smugglers take the drugs to China–which rightfully caused the Chinese to get upset! Never before, or since, has a plant caused such a conflict.

Pop Culture and Painkillers

Today, there is much less conflict over poppies and their seeds, with the flower’s main cultural connotation being remembrance. In 1920, poppies were named the official flower of World War I remembrance, a tradition that still continues to this day. Every year on May 24th, people all over the country wear red poppies to support current soldiers and remember those who gave their lives to serve the country.  

Poppies have also made a huge impact in pop culture. Perhaps the biggest is the poppy scene in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy falls into a drug-induced sleep after running through a field of poppies in pursuit of reaching Oz. Although this scene may seem overdramatic, it actually captures the power of poppies quite well; they continue to be an important ingredient in many medicines because the seeds are incredibly powerful painkillers. Morphine, one of the most effective anesthetics available for legal use today, is primarily made up of opium poppy. There is also a link between poppy seed consumption and reduced abdominal cramping. 

Finding the Perfect Poppy

The rich history and practical applications of poppy seeds make it easy to overlook the flowers themselves, but poppies are incredibly beautiful blooms that can fit in any garden. If you live in the North, oriental poppies are a great choice to grow–they are rated easy to grow and don’t require too much heat. People in warmer areas of the country may consider Himalayan poppies, which have gorgeously ornate centers, but they are also tough to successfully grow. 

All this talk about opium poppies calls for a reminder that this variety is highly illegal to grow in the United States! In addition to being a main ingredient of helpful drugs like morphine, opium poppies are also the basis for several highly addictive drugs like heroin and other opioids. This is why some athletes who have recently eaten poppy seed products have actually tested positive for drugs even without using any. Oh, and they’re also poisonous to most living things–so please, stick to one of the types above if you’re looking to add poppies to your garden. 

From medicine to pop culture, poppies are one of the most well-known flower varieties in the world today. Even better, they are also visually stunning. Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz had the right idea when she looked out at the poppy field and could only say “Wow”…even if they did eventually knock her out.