With its fluffly head of crepe paper-like petals, the scarlet, peony-flowering poppy (Papaver somnifera Paeoniflorum Group, sometimes known simply as Papaver paeoniflorum) is an eye-catching plant. The many-petaled specimens grow about 2 1/2 feet tall and have the dissected, blue-gray foliage characteristic of many poppies. Scarlet is only one of the many available colors, which range from white through a host of pinks and purples. According to Mrs. M. Grieve in "A Modern Herbal," Papaver paeoniflorum is one of two forms of double-flowered Papaver somniferum; the other is Papaver laciniatum, which has deeply cut or incised petals.
Poppies have been grown as ornamentals since ancient times, with evidence of ornamental cultivation in Egyptian funerary art. The species Papaver somniferum was named by Linnaeus in 1753. Since the seedheads are the most important part of the poppy for medicinal/pharmacological use, peony flowering forms have probably been grown exclusively for ornamental purposes. Forms of Papaver somniferum were grown in Elizabethan gardens in the 16th century. Peony flowering poppies occurred in 17th century Dutch flower paintings.
Papaver Somniferum Uses
Papaver somniferum is also known as the opium poppy, as the seed pods, when processed, yield alkaloids, including morphine and codeine. Beginning as far back as ancient Greece, the pods were collected and processed to be used medicinally. Historically as well as in the present day, morphine and codeine are prescribed to ease pain and provide sedation Laudanum, used as an anesthetic until the development of more effective types in the 20th century, is a tincture of opium, alcohol and water. The poppies grown for opium production are grown in enormous numbers as a field crop in the Middle and Far East. Peony-flowering types, while members of the same species, are not grown in this way as an agricultural crop.
The seeds of Papaver somniferum varieties, including the scarlet peony-flowered types, can be used in cooking, which is why they are sometimes referred to as "bread poppies." The tiny seeds are used in breads, cakes and the poppy seed fillings found in pastries. They can also be pressed to produce a nutritious oil. Poppy seeds intended for culinary use have usually been processed so that they will not germinate if sown.
Cultivars and Cultivation
"Frances Hoffman" is one available scarlet cultivar. Like many poppy species and varieties, the peony-flowering types self-sow readily. The plants thrive best in direct sun and well drained soil. Even under the best circumstances, however, the petals don't last long. The attractive, urn-shaped seed heads remain on the plants and are decorative in the garden or harvested for dried arrangements.
Peony flowering poppies, including the scarlet types, are common garden flowers. Officially in the United States, it is legal to sell the seeds of any Papaver somniferum variety or consume them (in baked goods, for example), but it is illegal to grow them. Some seed companies sell packaged Papaver somniferum seeds to home gardeners. Some also identify the peony flowering types as Papaver paeoniflorum, rather than using the Papaver somniferum designation.