Sugar Casters


IMG00013By far the cheeriest thing happening in my soggy vegetable garden are these tall, gorgeous, and super-double self-seeded papaver somniferum.

Poppies are much easier to start in the open field of a vegetable garden than among the shadows of a perennial garden. The lore in my part of the world says to throw the seed out onto the snow in early spring. I find that when I order poppy seed, I get such a stingy few in the package, that it makes sense to sow it out in the open, where I can babysit the seedlings.

Once you do get poppies, however, you will have them forever, because each flower produces a ton of seed and disperses it with one of nature's more ingenious pieces of engineering. The big pods are like a salt shaker or sugar caster, with a ring of neat little openings below the flat top, out of which seed flies every time the pod blows in the wind or is brushed against by a gardener.

Despite the density with which poppies will produce seedlings, the seedlings have to be ruthlessly thinned if you want them to look like anything. Otherwise, you will get pathetic, tiny flowers at ankle height. Given enough room, on the other hand, each plant can grow waist high, with wonderful blue foliage and incredibly seductive fat buds.

As to the legality of this display, from which opium could in theory be produced, I've never attempted to stay current with it. Twelve years ago Michael Pollan wrote a brilliant essay on the subject, available at the link. This is the highest form of garden writing–the kind that happens to be talking about the culture while it talks about plants.


  1. Gorgeous! I’ve tried to grow these double poppies, but the heads have been too heavy and they flopped over. So,I’ve stuck with singles, and other varieties of poppies: orientalis, Flanders, ‘Angel Wings’, and ‘Shirley’.

  2. Now I know why some of my self-sowed poppies were “pathetic, tiny flowers at ankle hieght.” Thanks for the advice.

    One avenue I found for getting great poppy seeds is from Historical Gardens. For example, I saw wonderful willful sowers at the Bellamy-Ferriday House in Bethlehem CT when I visited on a garden tour. They will graciously mail you seeds in the fall if you call and give them your address. (I have no association with them.) They add a distinct mauve-ish color I don’t have anywhere else in my garden.

  3. I just read the Pollan ariticle. Thanks; makes for interesting reading. Any info on where things stand regarding poppy growing a decade on?

  4. It’s raining in NC again so I had time to read the lengthy Pollan article. Anger would describe my response. Exactly who benefits from this Orwellian suppression of horticultural knowledge and how did it come to pass that the government regularly does the bidding of those who benefit the most? More so now than ever before. Oddly the NC DOT regularly plants bright red poppies along the interchanges of I-40.

  5. Apparently poppies are quite legal to grow as long as you don’t try to make opium from them… which is not really all that easy, either.

  6. If you look at the schedule all parts of opium poppies, except for the seed are illegal. It specifically mentions poppy straw and poppy capsules and pods.

    Time to lock up all those dastardly opium poppy manufacturing grannies!

    And technically the dried latex from the pods when slit is opium. It is claimed that one can just smoke it with no further processing.

    How you like them drug laws now?

  7. I read the Pollan article to the end. It is beautifully written, and like Christopher, it made me angry. Somewhere in this country we have gotten things out of order. We’ve been fighting the war on drugs for how long? How much has this country spent, and to what end? I pray for wise men to govern us, but I fear, in the end, that is something we will never have. At least we have writers like Michael who will tell it like it is.

    And for the record, I have one oriental poppy. It is the star of our garden. I’m too darn askeered to plant any other kind of poppy. And that is just sad.

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