The crowd grows impatient but according to an innate schedule, the stage lights dim, the crowd hushes and the spotlight comes on as the deep maroon-purple velvet curtain pulls back revealing its main performer center stage. So begins the late spring season of “Papaver, the Poppy.”
It wasn’t until I moved to the drier climate of Sequim, WA, on the Olympic Peninsula that I began to truly appreciate the Papaver, the poppy. This area’s long, warm, late spring and early summer days encourage a rich bounty of poppy varieties to display their colorful blossoms. The sprightly flowers set atop grey-green lobed or dissected foliage and others with bristly, divided foliage help enhance formal floral settings and enliven many neighborhood flower gardens. Popping up in the most unexpected places, they provide a bright addition to the edges of sidewalks, along river dikes, and even the more impoverished soils along the curbsides sprout miniature versions in white, pink, red, orange, orange-yellows and purple. Some folk give over to not mowing their lawns and just let the poppies take over until they have run their course.
Given all the variety of colors, textures, and tones of poppies in our area, I am most captivated by the lavender and the maroon-purple ones. Perhaps it’s because I am going through a purple phase of my life but they bring up mystery, the intrigue of royalty, and the exotic lands far to the east. The darker maroon ones especially remind me of childhood visits to our local Panida Theater in Sandpoint, ID,, with its unique Spanish mission style architecture, subdued wrought-iron lighting fixtures with parchment shades hanging from the tall ceilings, its stuccoed walls with golden highlights; but most of all, the poppies remind me of the the purplish-maroon velvety curtains from behind which the much-anticipated cinemas and performers appeared. I never tired of watching the lights dim and the heavy curtains swoosh open and take a few moments to settle into place and again, to swoosh close at the end, their golden trim sparkling in the houselights.
Another one of my childhood memories in the 1950’s involving poppies is of the Veteran’s sale of Remembrance Day poppies in our grade school when patriotic music was played extra loud on the record player and our primary classes would line up at the bottom of our steep staircase, kept immaculately clean and smelling of sawdust and floor wax by our janitor who mysteriously appeared from the boiler room between classes to sweep the playground debris off the treads. We’d ascend the steps and drop our silver dime in the donation box at the top, receive our paper, red Flanders Field Remembrance Day poppy with green floral tape wrapped on its stem from the American Legion volunteer and then descend the opposite side of the staircase and march back to our classrooms.
My mother and grandmother had a few pinkish-lavender pom pon poppies growing in their gardens that self-seeded and which we found ourselves thinning heavily each year. Some of our friends had the bright red or orange Oriental poppies whose bristly stems and leaves seemed unfriendly to me when I bumped up against them while weeding out the grasses that favored growing around their bases. Our clay soils often times coupled with rainy springs seasons just didn’t favor the more exotic and colorful varieties.
According to my research, the wild poppy spread from the Western Mediterranean area, perhaps having been domesticated over 8000 years ago. Its medicinal properties found in the seeds were utilized by early peoples to relieve pain. Mothers added red poppy juice from the petals to babies’ food to put their tikes to sleep or made it into a child’s simple cough syrup.
The whole plant of the California Poppy Eschscholzia californica has medicinal properties and herbalists either dry the herb for later processing or while fresh, chopping it fine and mixing it in an alcohol menstruum or solvent to extract its healing properties. When I see the California poppies which grow profusely on the Dungeness River dike in the warming days of early summer, I am reminded of our stay in New Mexico during the late 90’s when both Michael and I trained as herbal apprentices. We’d travel to a Mexican border town, cross over to get 95 proof ethanol alcohol and dump it out into a five-gallon water jug clearly disguised as water, securely tape the jug shut and drive back across the border in order to have a medium to tincture our herbs, one them being California poppy which we gathered at the edge of the Apache Reservation. At the time, this seemed right out of a western smuggler’s history. I can also remember the foot hills being covered for miles with bright drifts of their yellow-orange blossoms.
Poppy seeds harvested mainly from Papaver somniferum remain a favorite culinary ingredient. Who hasn’t enjoyed their unique flavor and crunchiness in cakes and muffins, cookies and bagels, jelly roll fillings, cheeses, noodles, sauces, curries, and breads, etc. Besides enjoying their flavor, the seeds are a strong source of minerals and heart-healthy essential fatty acids. They are an active ingredient in some skin conditioners and scalp treatments, having the reputation for helping to regrow hair. An extracted oil from the seeds softens the skin by properties which improve hydration and elasticity finding value in hair care products, skin creams, lip balms, and body butters. For the culinary industry, poppy seed oil adds a smooth and subtle-tasting flavor as a salad oil and for dipping crusty breads. The oil is also popular with oil paint enthusiasts because it takes longer to dry and can be blended with other paints for wet-on-wet paintings. Within the medical profession, it is utilized for its carrier capacity to help diagnose and contrast specific procedures.
Most papaver are grown for their natural beauty of adding accent to yard and garden. I recently discovered a blue Himalayan poppy growing in a neighborhood plant nursery. I had seen postcards and paintings of them in Victoria, BC, at the Butchart Gardens when a friend and I visited a few summers ago, but by then it was past flowering. Nevertheless, I came back with an urge to have the plant, picking up several postcards adorned with this beautiful blossom at the gift shop to remind me of it until then. The blue poppy Meconopsis grandis is a unique flower in Butchart’s floral history, having been grown there since the 1920’s soon after its discovery by Captain Marshman Baily in the Himalayas. It’s fussy and takes finesse to get it to sprout and grow successfully. So you can imagine how pleased I was when one day two summers ago as I was walking past the bordering shrubs of the nursery to spy it growing in a garden bed. I scampered right in for a closer view and and came back the next day for a camera shot.
Of course, its greatest reputation revolves around it being the source of opium for anaesthesic and ritual purposes dating to ancient sources where it was extracted and utilized by early surgeons to perform prolonged surgical operations. Historically, its more notorious use as the source of addictive smoke and the illicit drug heroin is unfortunate but predictive given human nature.
“To the Innocent Gaze”
To the innocent gaze,
one might see only beauty
and miss entirely the lovely,
richly-hued maroon petals
resembling exquisite fabrics
adorning drug-laden seed pods
filled with the allure of
journeys to far off places.
“Purple Poppy Haiku”
The purple poppy
shed her kirtle in the breeze
and danced happily.
“A Chorus Line of Poppies”
On my morning walk, I am drawn to a chorus line of poppies flowering along the fence, their necks curved like swans which straighten upward holding aloft gray-green buds beneath husks that split apart revealing crinkled petals stretching and smoothing out in the warming sun, attracting my eye to their gloriously rich bosoms and ear to the buzzing of bumblebees. Another day, their distinctive seed pods now devoid of petals, wear flat-topped skimmers.
Blessings on your journeys fellow travelers. Until next time, peace to one and all.