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A history of eternal sleep, opium, and cakes

by Timber Press on October 4, 2016

in Gardening, Natural History

Papaver orientale varieties from Foerster’s Gartenstauden Bilderbuch (1938), illustrated by Esther Bartning. Courtesy of Bettina Jacobi.

Step into the lush history of the iconic perennial poppy! Noel Kingsbury presents the science along with the symbolism of Papaver plants in Garden Flora.

Papaver Papaveraceae

Papaver (from the Latin for the plant) contains around 70 species, widely distributed in the northern hemisphere north of the tropics. It includes some of the most familiar flower icons, known almost universally for the thin satiny texture of their petals, and blooms which always seem so large in comparison to the rest of the plant. Given their strong floral impact and that they are easy to grow, it is surprising, and rather a shame, that so few are in cultivation. The genus has been divided into a number of sections by botanists, but genetic analysis suggests that not all species share a common origin, which in modern terms means that they cannot all be included in the same genus; reclassification and renaming loom ominously.

Plant lifespan varies from annuals, sometimes very short-lived, through biennials to clonal perennials. Annual poppies illustrate very clearly some of the key aspects of the most short-lived pioneer plants: a high proportion of biomass dedicated to flowers—essential to attract pollinators—followed by sturdy seedheads and a large volume of seed, which in some species is able to survive long periods buried in soil, possibly even centuries. Annual species include familiar weeds of arable land (e.g., Papaver rhoeas), of the open soils of dry habitats in the Mediterranean and central Asian regions, and of high-altitude or high-latitude environments; Arctic species (e.g., P. radicatum) are some of the most northerly of all higher plants. The best-known perennial poppies, the P. orientale types, originate from an area encompassing the Caucasus and parts of central Asia, growing in steppe, mountain grasslands, and scrub. These are true clonal perennials with a lifecycle reminiscent of geophytes, making rapid early growth, flowering, and then going into mid-summer dormancy.

Papaver orientale varieties are visible in the foreground here, a display border at Kelway’s nursery from the 1909 edition of Gardens of Delight, a promotional booklet that was used to market the company’s concepts of ready-made borders. Courtesy of Kelways Plants Ltd.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
(John McCrae, Canadian soldier, May 1915)

Red poppies appear in many cultures but with varying symbolism, sometimes for death (as eternal sleep) and sometimes for resurrection. Papaver rhoeas has an important symbolic role in Britain for its link with World War I, as vast amounts of buried seed germinated in the soil of the battlefields of northern France; paper ones are sold every autumn to raise money for veterans’ charities. Widely used as a source of seed for bread and cakes, P. somniferum is most famous and infamous as the source of opium. Long used as an analgesic, it appears to have become first widely used as a recreational narcotic in 15th-century China. It was extensively grown in 19th-century England for the production of laudanum; this century also saw the beginnings of today’s drug trade when the British government forced the Chinese to accept trade in opium in the notorious Opium Wars. It is still widely grown for medical use, but it also fuels the illegal production of heroin, so providing the income for a plethora of terrorist and criminal groups.


Noel Kingsbury is a well-known designer, commentator, and writer on plants, gardens, landscape, and the environment. A passionate advocate for sustainable plant combinations, he trials plants and gardens at his home on the border between England and Wales and travels widely.


Click image for a look inside this book.


“Noel Kingsbury has a great talent for writing books that entertain and fascinate, and also prove useful for gardeners of all levels.” —Piet Oudolf, landscape architect and author of Planting, Hummelo, and Landscapes in Landscapes

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