In photography circles, there’s a time when a subject becomes so familiar or common that it’s thought of as a “mature subject.”
For example, to Kodiak residents, mature subjects might include eagles, bears, and spruce trees. For someone in Florida, it might be flamingos, alligators, and palm trees.
Here’s where a “mature” garden subject comes in. … Every summer I host photography workshops for guests traveling to Kodiak with Natural Habitat Adventures. They spend a couple of days in Kodiak and then fly to Katmai to hang out with the bears. On the morning of their flight, they visit our home and garden for their photo workshop — more like a pep talk.
One time, a group of camera buffs from Poland, California, British Columbia and Wisconsin arrived at the house. After sharing the PowerPoint presentation, we spilled out to the garden, cameras in tow.
It didn’t take but a few minutes for them to notice mini-forests of blue poppies blooming atop three-foot tall, fuzzy stems. Camera shutters clicked, smartphones captured movies.
Blue poppies, to most people, are not mature subjects. Do you realize how fortunate we are to be able to grow these flowers, and with relative ease? Many gardeners would give their left green thumb to “have the blues” in their yard. Lucky for us, blue poppies, also known as
Tibetan or Himalayan poppies, are more at home where it’s cool; their seeds require cold conditions to break dormancy.
So if your California friends express poppy envy, it’s well founded. Even gardeners in Washington state have struggled with this perennial since the Pacific Northwest started shifting to a more Mediterranean climate some 35 years ago.
Once considered a myth, blue poppies are native to the high elevations of the Himalayan Mountains. These spectacular flowers are members of the genus Meconopsis in the family Papaveraceae, though the jury’s still out about how they are classified.
Blue poppies were first described by French botanist Viguier in 1814 who named it as poppy-like (Greek ‘mekon’ for poppy, and ‘opsis’ for alike). What I didn’t realize since starting to grow blue poppies some 25 years ago is that the species has two distinct ranges. There’s Meconopsis cambrica, also known as the Welsh poppy, which is indigenous to England, Wales, Ireland, and the fringes of Western Europe.
Welsh poppies bloom in abundance around Kodiak as clumps of copious yellow flowers that bloom most of the summer and are an important food source for bumblebees. They’re a homeless flower though, as recent studies suggest that Welsh poppies do not belong in the Meconopsis genus.
Then there’s Meconopsis grandis, the blue poppy, which is the national flower of Bhutani. M. grandis has been the topic of many stories, including “Blue Heaven,” a gardening memoir written by horticulturalist and author Bill Terry about the plant.
How did the West learn about blue poppies? It’s believed that in the spring of 1922, a British Himalayan expedition, led by legendary mountaineer George Mallory, discovered the plant on their failed attempt to reach the summit of the then-unconquered Mount Everest.
The flowers were introduced to much excitement at the Royal Horticultural Society’s spring garden show of 1926. However, since they are difficult to grow, the species has become fabled over the decades, hence the myth. While Himalayan poppies carry the reputation for being difficult to grow, the yellow Welsh Poppy is often judged as a weed, though a nice-looking one,
due to its vigorous self-seeding. Meconopsis poppies are available in shades of blue, red, orange, purple, white and yellow depending on species and cultivar.
Blue poppies, by the way, do not produce opium as do their cousins in the Papaver family. Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, is the species from which opium and poppy seeds are derived. Opium is the source of many drugs, including morphine, heroin, codeine and so on. The Latin botanical name means the “sleep-bringing poppy.”
Needless to say, the opium poppy, which is grown as an annual, is the only species of Papaveraceae that is an agricultural crop grown on a large scale. And we’re not just talking drugs here. Poppy seeds are an important food item and my favorite cultivar, “Przemko” is an excellent source of poppy seeds and thrives in Kodiak. In case you were wondering, the seeds
themselves contain very small amounts of opiates, and have no measurable narcotic effect in small quantities.
That said, I know of Coast Guard pilots who stay clear of poppy seed muffins. The television show MythBusters demonstrated that one could test positive for narcotics after consuming four poppy seed bagels. On the show “Brainiac: Science Abuse” subjects tested positive after eating only two poppy seed bagels.
Many gardeners cultivate P. somniferum in Kodiak. And for years, the seed catalog company Thompson & Morgan, based out of the U.K., carried many varieties of poppies. Then one year, no varieties were available. When I talked with a customer service rep, they said it was “too risky” to carry the seeds.
Technically speaking, it is illegal to grow opium poppies in the United States as well as in Austria, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates, where possession of poppy seeds is also illegal. Imagine being imprisoned for possessing poppy seeds obtained from a bread roll.
Opium is listed as a Schedule II controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration, though it’s rarely enforced for poppies grown or sold for ornamental purposes. The stem and seed pod (the principal source of latex used to create opiates) are popular additions to dried flower arrangements.
Though the opium poppy is legal for culinary or esthetic reasons, poppies were once grown as a cash crop by farmers in California. Thus the law of poppy cultivation in the United States is somewhat ambiguous because The Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942 (now repealed) stated that any opium poppy should be declared illegal, even if growers were issued a state permit.
This led to the Poppy Rebellion, a time when the Narcotics Bureau arrested anyone planting opium poppies and forced the destruction of poppy fields. Today, this area of law has remained vague and somewhat controversial in the United States.
Meanwhile, last I checked, you can’t get arrested for possessing poppy photos. I hope this article makes blue poppies a more mature subject for you.
Have a wonderful week. Blessings, Marion.
Have you seen my new YouTube channel? To get there, copy the following name and paste it in your browser: youtube.com/ItsNeverTooLate. Meanwhile, if you have a gardening question get it off your chest! firstname.lastname@example.org.
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