Papaver somniferum: Is This Drop-Dead-Gorgeous Poppy Illegal to Grow in the U.S.?

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on July 5, 2010

As a gardener and avid reader of articles and books related to gardening and horticulture, I’ve more than once stumbled upon a curious assertion that the Bread Seed Poppy, Papaver somniferum, is actually the Opium Poppy and therefore illegal to grow. I didn’t give the claim much credence, because the seed is sold openly by such venerable establishments as Thompson and Morgan, Burpee, Park Seed, Cooks Garden Seeds, and many others.


Bread Seed Poppy/Opium Poppy (Papaver

urther research on my part established that the Bread Seed Poppy is, indeed, the Opium Poppy and that poppies named Papaver paeoniflorum and Papaver gigantum are actually synonymous with Papaver somniferum. Furthermore, it’s the poppy from which the seeds are harvested and sold in grocery stores and the dried pods of which are sold by craft stores and florists as a striking accent for floral arrangements.

Like many o ther gardeners, I had always thought that opium poppies grew only in Asian countries, especially those in the Golden Triangle in southeast Asia. The extraction of opiate from the pods was a complicated process, not easily accomplished by the ordinary gardener—or so I thought. I was wrong on both counts. Papaver somniferum is actually an annual that grows quite readily in average gardens and is a prolific self-sower, to which gardeners who grow the Bread Seed Poppy can attest. (I’ve heard claims that the seed is so hardy, you can plant a poppy seed bagel and it will produce poppy seedlings!) And the extraction of raw opium is actually quite a simple process. I won’t describe it here because I don’t want to contribute to its use in any way.

The opium poppy comes in many colors, including pink, white lavender, purple, and scarlet.  Flowers are usually single, but some cultivars produce dramatic double flowers like this one.


For the most part, garden writers have tiptoed around the legal issues surrounding Papaver somniferum, electing instead to extol its storied beauty or the use of its seed as a culinary ingredient. Nary a mention is made, either, of the fact that in past centuries, this poppy was used to treat or guard against such maladies as insomnia, anxiety, coughs, dysentery, malaria, tuberculosis, and colic. Victorian ladies dried its pods and brewed them into a “relaxing” tea. And what sweet irony is contained in the fact that members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union would kick back and relax after one of their energetic crusades against alcohol with a “women’s tonic,” the main ingredient of which was opium.

Papaver somniferum seed pod                                                  Anonymous

The only exception I’ve discovered so far to garden writers who dodge the legality issue is Michael Pollan. He’s one of the best garden writers around, and his writings are so well-crafted that they appeal to a much broader audience than just gardeners. Pollan meets the issue head on, sharing with the reader his agony and his ecstasy in growing this glorious poppy. You can find his musings in the April 1, 1997, issue of Harper's Magazine.

So what does the federal law say about Papaver somniferum? Let’s take a look:

US Dept. of Justice
Drug Enforcement Administration
Office of Diversion Control:
Section 802
Illegal Narcotic Drugs:

(17) (A) Opium, opiates, derivatives of opium and opiates, including their isomers, esters, ethers, salts, and salts of isomers, esters, and ethers, whenever the existence of such isomers, esters, ethers, and salts is possible within the specific chemical designation… (B) Poppy straw and concentrate of poppy straw… (C) Coca leaves, except coca leaves and extracts of coca leaves from which cocaine, ecgonine, and derivatives of ecgonine or their salts have been removed. (D) Cocaine, its salts, optical and geometric isomers, and salts of isomers. (E) Ecgonine, its derivatives, their salts, isomers, and salts of isomers. (F) Any compound, mixture, or preparation which contains any quantity of any of the substances referred to in subparagraphs (A) through (E).

(19) …"Opium poppy" means the plant of the species Papaver somniferum L., except the seed thereof.

(20) …"Poppy straw" means all parts, except the seeds, of the opium poppy, after mowing. [Author’s note: Think about those dried pods and stems in craft shops.]

Those exempted from the law:

(21) …"Practitioner" means a physician, dentist, veterinarian, scientific investigator, pharmacy, hospital, or other person licensed, registered, or otherwise permitted, by the United States or the jurisdiction in which he practices or does research, to distribute, dispense, conduct research with respect to, administer, or use in teaching or chemical analysis, a controlled substance in the course of professional practice or research.

(22) The term "production" includes the manufacture, planting, cultivation, growing, or harvesting of a controlled substance.

And further:

Section 812
Schedules of controlled substances

This schedule applies to a “drug or other substance [that] has a high potential for abuse, ”has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States…” and “may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.”

(a) Unless specifically excepted or unless listed in another schedule, any of the following substances [are illegal] whether produced directly or indirectly by extraction from substances of vegetable origin, or independently by means of chemical synthesis, or by a combination of extraction and chemical synthesis:
(1) Opium and opiate, and any salt, compound, derivative, or preparation of opium or opiate.
(2) Any salt, compound, derivative, or preparation thereof which is chemically equivalent or identical with any of the substances referred to in clause (1), except that these substances shall not include the isoquinoline alkaloids of opium.
(3) Opium poppy and poppy straw.

What conclusions can we draw from this law? Clearly, the possession of opium is illegal, except when used by pharmacists, doctors, dentists, vets, researchers, and the like. But the law goes further and seems to encompass the growing of opium-producing plants as well. It forbids the possession of “poppy straw,” a curious term that includes all parts of the plant except the seed, after the plant has been “mowed.” That would seem to say that possession of the dried seed pods in arrangements is illegal too. The catch 22 in all this is that one has to grow poppies illegally to produce legal seed, from which one can then again grow illegal poppies.

Poppy seed is specifically exempted from the law. But I suspect that the exemption has come into question, because the seed contains small amounts of opium as well. Our favorite supermarket, we were surprised to discover, has stowed its entire supply of poppy seed behind a counter, out of reach of shoppers. One must now approach the appropriate counter and request the seed from the store’s stash!

No matter how the opium laws are interpreted, actions in past years by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lead me to believe that the federal government considers the growing of Papaver somniferum illegal. One example mentioned by Michael Pollan is a letter to Thompson and Morgan from the DEA. Here is the relevant excerpt:

It has come to the attention of the United States Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), that in certain parts of the United States the opium poppy (Papaver Somniferum L.) is being cultivated for culinary and horticultural purposes. The cultivation of opium poppy in the United States is illegal [emphasis is mine], as is the possession of “poppy straw, (all parts of the harvested opium poppy except the seeds). Certain seed companies have been identified as selling opium poppy seeds, some with instruction for cultivation printed on the retail packages. Before this situation adds to the drug abuse epidemic, DEA is requesting your assistance in curbing such activity.

So, on which side of the law does that leave those U.S. gardeners who grow the Bread Seed Poppy? Seemingly on the wrong side. Prosecution, however, has been very sporadic and very selective. I’m not aware of any prosecutions in this country in recent years.

On a whim and out of curiosity, my wife called the local sheriff’s office and asked what would happen if we grew the Bread Seed Poppy in our gardens. The sheriff was perplexed and admitted that he didn’t know what the Bread Seed Poppy was. My wife explained that it seemed to be illegal to grow it in the U.S. and yet its seed was offered by reputable companies and planted by ordinary gardeners. The sheriff was somewhat amused and said he would call us back after doing some research. His subsequent response was that he would have no interest in arresting us if we grew the poppy for its garden or culinary value.

Yet the federal government says in the excerpt above that it’s illegal to do so. Should you be growing this poppy now or sometime in the future—for horticultural or culinary purposes, of course—perhaps the best policy might be to follow the advice of the federal government in another murky matter: Don’t ask, don’t tell!


Author's Endnote

Please don't let this article keep you from growing poppies!  There are more than 70 other poppy species under the genus Papaver.  They are all legal to grow and include the popular Oriental (bottom right), Iceland (top left), and Corn (bottom left) Poppies.  The California Poppy (Escholzia californica) is in the Papervacae family, but doesn't belong to the Papaver genus.  Photos are courtesy of Wikimedia.


Related articles:
Breadseed Poppy, DEA, Drug Enforcement Administration, gardening, gardens, illegal plants, Papaver somniferum, poppies

About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at

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