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24 september 2017

Andrew Lack's Poppy is mostly about two species: Papaver rhoeas, the corn poppy, and Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.

The corn poppy, though it grows worldwide, seems a quintessential English flower. "Poppy-land" in East Anglia was popularized by the 19th-century English writer Clement Scott; John Ruskin was obsessed with poppies (among a lot of other things); and after the first world war, the British adopted the corn poppy as their great flower of remembrance for the dead. Though they had help: John McCrae, author of the much-reproduced and much-imitated poem "In Flanders Fields," was Canadian, and the most tireless promoter of silk and paper poppies as a memorial symbol was the American Moina Michael.

Lack discusses P. rhoeas' status as a "cornfield weed." Americans would call it a wheatfield weed, but Lack notes that a grainfield of any kind full of these scarlet poppies is increasingly a thing of the past. Herbicides and monocultural strategies have made the once-familiar sight of a wheatfield full of poppies nearly extinct. I'm sure I've seen corn poppies growing here and there along the roadsides of northern Europe, but the archetypal field that inspired poets is now preserved mainly in their poems.

People don't grow corn poppies in Texas very much, intentionally or not. But Papaver somniferum grows eagerly here. The thing about opium poppy is that it's sort of illegal. A Q&A page at the Texas A&M Extension website mentions the forbidden status of P. somniferum and steers gardeners toward other poppy options, like the California poppy. Actual gardeners I've known tend to ignore this. Other websites insist that opium poppy is legal for "culinary and aesthetic purposes." I don't know who to believe. Texas A&M ought to know, but their site gets some of the botanical names wrong (the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, is in a separate genus, not a Papaver as A&M has it; and they spell both it and P. rhoeas incorrectly anyway). The sites that tell you to go ahead and grow aesthetic opium poppies tend to be in psychedelic fonts and have names like Uncle Funky's Wacko Weed World.

I suppose I should tell y'all not to plant opium poppies, but the seeds are delicious, and a single plant will yield several dozen muffins. Among the bizarre features of the modern total war on drugs is the brisk trade in poppyseeds and poppy oil. (Neither of these contain opiates, though the seeds are well-known to create false positives on some drug tests.) The seeds on your bagel come from the exact same capsule that produces opium latex – this isn't even a situation like cannabis, where fiber hemp and marijuana are somewhat different cultivars. Those nice purple flowers your Aunt Tessie grows out back are the exact same species that both the Taliban and the CIA have tried to eradicate in Afghanistan … at least when it wasn't more profitable to sell their products.

The various poppies' associations with war and remembrance on the one hand, with opium dreams on the other, have left little room for other cultural freight. One motif that Lack discusses is the "tallest poppies" parable, dear to the heart of Margaret Thatcher. This metaphor sees society as a poppyfield where one can either lop the heads off all poppies that dare to grow above a certain height, or instead encourage all kinds of diversity in poppy stature. Thatcher believed that socialism amounted to poppy-lopping. In Australia, however, decapitating the tallest poppies, so to speak, is seen as sound social engineering. Much depends on whether you see inequality as unjust or awesome. Unnervingly at the back of this metaphor lies the status of corn poppies as a weed. Thickets of ever-taller poppies may look awesome, but they tend to suck the productive life out of the amber waves of grain.

Lack, Andrew. Poppy. London: Reaktion, 2016.