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.|
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
|Breadseed Poppy, DEA, Drug Enforcement Administration, gardening, gardens, illegal plants, Papaver somniferum, poppies|
|"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 Amazon.com.|
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