The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), an annual, is widely grown as an ornamental plant that grows pink, purple, red and white blossoms. It is also grown for its seeds that are used to top bagels, muffins, breads and for an oil that has culinary uses. Papaver somniferum yields opium, the source of morphine, heroin and other drugs. Although poppy plants are widely and easily grown and are commonplace weeds in Europe, international agencies monitor their production.
Soil and Sun
Poppies do not like heavy soil; mix sand, peat moss and vermiculite into heavy, clay soils. The soil should drain well.
Poppies like from 8 to 14 hours of sun each day; 12 hours is best. Maturing plants like drier soil, longer days and stronger sunlight. Flowering poppies optimally require 16 or more hours of sunlight. Poppies can be grown indoors if the temperature is cool and they get enough light.
Papaver somniferum seeds germinate in 10 to 21 days if the soil temperature is 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. They can be sown in the fall in areas with mild winters. Poppies planted in the fall will lay dormant during the winter and start growing again in the spring. In the spring, seeds are sown when the last winter snow melts. Plants that are sown in the fall will mature earlier than those planted in the spring.
Poppies grown commercially are sown in shallow furrows at the rate of 9 to 13 pounds per 2 ½ acres. In Asia, the seeds are mixed with sand scattered over fields at the rate of 1 pound per 2 ½ acres; the soil is kept moist until the seeds germinate.
Poppies do not transplant well; they are usually planted where they are to grow.
The small leaves of emerging poppies look like lettuce; the emerging buds will often bend the stalks, but they will straighten and grow erect again. Poppies are thinned from 12 to 24 inches apart when they are 4 to 6 inches tall. For mechanical cultivation, horticulturalists at Purdue University recommend spacing 4 inches apart in rows 16 inches apart.
Water and Fertilizer
Poppies are best watered in the morning or afternoon. The plants are watered and fertilized until they start flowering. The watering is stopped when the petals appear.
Use a 30-10-10 fertilizer mix applied every two weeks. A liquid fertilizer is often used when the plants are 10 inches tall. Organic growers can use Alaskan fish fertilizer. When the flowers are about to bloom, a 10-30-20 fertilizer will produce extra vivid colors.
Flowering and Seeds
Flowering begins from 8 to 12 weeks after the seeds germinate. Poppies produce flowers for two weeks or more. After that, their petals will drop and their pods will slowly begin to swell and ripen.
The ripening pods will turn yellow until they are as dry as straw. Each pod will contain more than 1,000 seeds. The dry pods are broken open, and the seeds shaken onto paper; they can be sown immediately or stored in a refrigerator.
It is against federal law to grow poppies for the purpose of extracting opium derivatives. The legality of growing poppies for other purposes is governed by state and local laws. In some jurisdictions poppies are regarded as invasive weeds and their cultivation is prohibited for that reason. Poppies are grown commercially as ornamentals and for their culinary seeds and oil. Poppies are worn in the U.S. and countries of the British commonwealth to honor service men and women who died in war. This takes place on November 11, Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in Canada.