By Roberta Bailey
Quite a few years ago, a Slovakian friend served me a dish of little soft pieces of bread sticks, coated with a sauce of ground poppyseeds, some honey, and probably a few other ingredients. I had never had anything like it. It was unforgettably delicious. While we ate, he explained that Slovaks used poppyseeds as a staple, a family wanting to have a 50-kilogram sack to go through the winter. He showed me his poppyseed grinder, a miniature cross between a grain grinder and a meat grinder. And he handed me three very large seed heads. As I mentally scrambled for a storage container, I realized that the seed was not leaking out. Closer inspection revealed that the vent holes beneath the poppy’s cap were filled with corky flesh. A flush of respect swept my whole body as I realized that I was holding the results of generations of selection for seed production. Ventless poppy heads, of course!
The seed was quickly becoming my most cherished possession. “Does it have a name?” I asked. My friend reflected, then explained that the seed came from his mother’s village where there are early and late poppies. It came from women who have no concept of a seed packet or a name. One just goes to the market and buys poppy seed by the kilogram. You cook with it and you save some for planting. Maybe you save your own seed. I could call it ‘Zlar,’ the name of his mother’s village. But if she were to move to another village, what would it be called then? I decided to call it ‘Zlar.’
Not long after that visit, my friend went back to what was still Czechoslovakia. While there he sought a white-seeded poppy that he had never seen as a child, but had heard of later. Very sweet, delicately nutty, and over 50 percent oil content, the white seeded breadseed poppy was once used like nuts or oil. When walnuts became commercially available in the region, the seed virtually disappeared. He found an elderly woman, Elka, growing them in the mountainous region of her home. And so it came to North America. My friend passed the pearly white seed on to me with the name ‘Elka.’ I waited almost a year to taste a handful of this seed. At harvest time, I noticed that about 20 percent of ‘Elka’ still had open vents. I carefully saved a little seed from every pod with closed vents for my planting stock. The rest went into a big bowl from which I took my long awaited handful of seed. As I chewed I suddenly suspected that the women of Crete worshiped a poppy goddess for more than one reason.
The breadseed poppy, Papaver somniferum, of the family Papaveraceae, is a stiff, erect 2 to 4-foot annual with silvery, lettuce type leaves that wrap around the stem. The flower buds are pendulous and coarsely hairy, but become upright when open. Blossoms range in color from white or pale pink to red and dark purplish black, each with a darker arch of color around close to the seed pod. The pods range in size from a dime to that of a chicken egg. Some have vents beneath the seedhead crown. A few do not. Indigenous to the eastern Mediterranean region, Asia Minor and central Asia, poppies are widely cultivated in temperate zones, including Europe, the United States and Britain, with the best quality seed reputed to come from Holland.
Breadseed poppies are also opium poppies. ‘Somniferum’ means ‘sleep bearing.’ The drug opium can be made from its juices, which contain the important alkaloids, morphine and codeine. Historically, opium and, more commonly, a tea made from the ground poppy seed heads (without the seed) were regarded as ‘God’s own medicine,’ being as widely used as a painkiller as aspirin is today. Until 1915, opium was a popular non-prescription remedy and the U.S. government encouraged production of poppies as a cash crop. During the Civil War, it was patriotic to plant opium poppies, ensuring a steady supply of painkillers for the wounded. Poppy tea was a common remedy for muscle ache, diarrhea, coughs and headaches, and was a mild sedative. Caution in frequency of use was common sense as with any drug.
With the beginning of the control of certain drugs (laws that deny us our common sense) came laws against growing P. somniferum and the gradual loss of the knowledge of folk remedies. Present federal law states that the entire poppy plant is illegal, but that the seed, which is used for culinary purposes and has very low alkaloid levels, is not. Legal seed produces illegal plants which produce legal seed, as Michael Pollan explains (“Opium, Made Easy – One Gardener’s Encounter with the War on Drugs.” Harpers, April 1997).
Until recently, this federal law was likened to that of ripping the tags off of pillows and mattresses, Pollan continues. Nobody ever did time for it. The Drug Enforcement Agency seems to be silently, subtly cracking down within the industry. The silence seems to relate as much to the supply of poppy information as to the growth of the plant. Some seedsmen and flower shops have been asked to stop selling seed or ornamental seed heads. A letter was sent to some seed companies asking them not to sell the seeds. It is legal to sell the seed, although putting cultivation instructions on the packet could get a company in trouble.
Some seed companies have opted for selling the low morphine varieties bred in Germany. This seems to be a safe option for those who want to enjoy worry free beauty and some possibility of good seed. (Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Albion, Me. offers ‘Przemko,’ with 0.05% morphine in the dry seed head, ten times less than standard levels.) I’m not convinced that any home gardener will ever see a DEA agent in the midst of his or her flower garden. I am less convinced that an agent could tell the difference between a low morphine selection of P. somniferum and my prized Slovakian poppies, let alone P. paeoniflorum, or P. giganteum or P. rhoes. As an heirloom gardener whose prize possession is three strains of culinary poppy seed, I find the law to be an unnecessary control. What about the Datura inoxia I also grow, certainly a powerful hallucinogen, or the rhubarb whose stems are so delicious but whose leaves can be deadly? Will we see a law that states one can grow the rhubarb but not the leaves?
Whether we opt for the low-morphine selections or choose to be a tag ripping American is a decision each of us gets to make privately. As a contradiction to the attempts to regulate our food and our bodies, and the freedom of information, here are the cultural tips no longer found on your seed packet. Like all food grown at home, the results are so much tastier than anything found in a supermarket. Poppy seed in a spice jar of a store is hardly worth the bother.
Poppies are easy to grow. They flourish with fairly rich, moist soil and plenty of sunshine. Add rich compost or well-rotted manure to beds or rows for full-sized poppy seed heads. A neutral pH is ideal.
Pre-chilling the seed stimulates the chill of winter sometimes needed to break dormancy, ensuring and increasing germination. To pre-chill seed, place it in a moisture-proof container (plastic bag, lidded plastic container, etc.) and refrigerate for three to seven days. Seed can be sown in late fall or very early spring.
Plant seed in shallow drills with rows 1 foot apart. This distance allows plants to support each other en masse. If single rows are planted, some lodging may occur. Stake to keep seed heads off the ground, as moisture will cause rot and discoloration of the seed. When plants appear, thin to 6 inches apart, being careful not to disturb the sensitive root systems of the remaining plants. Avoid thinning on hot or extremely dry days.
Mulching is optional. I have grown successful crops with and without mulch. As mulch regulates moisture and keeps the weeds down, I usually use it.
Now, all you have to do is sit back and watch the show, “the poppies red effrontery,” as Robert Browning wrote. Or the delicate shades of pink, lavender and purple. Louise Beebe Wilder reflected, “It is a pity that the poppies are in such haste to shed their silken petals and show their crowned seed pods.” A day or two of glory and the petals fall. Fortunately more buds open each day. Often, I pick the petals from the ground, marveling over their oriental beauty, imagining that they have been the inspiration of much great art.
The seed pods will continue to increase in size for weeks after the petals fail. By late summer, the pods will begin to dry, turning silver gray. As they dry the seeds loosen and detach from the inner membranes along the seed wall. Watch your seed heads closely in their last few weeks. Harvest pods just after they dry or a little before fully dry, if you need to avoid seed loss. Avoid leaving pods so long that they lodge and rot. In sparse years, mice will climb the stems and chew a small hole in the base of the seed head. The pods still look great from a distance, but when you go to harvest them, they are empty. I clip the pods with a hand held pruner. Leave stems long for ornamental use or clip close the pod for ease of drying.
Poppies with sealed vents can be hung in bunches to fully dry. Spread seed heads to dry in an airy location for a few weeks. You may need to put them in flat containers so seed is not lost. Once pods are fully dry and brittle with seed rattling inside, either pour out the seed or break the pod and pour. Any chaff can be separated by a screen that lets the seed pass and holds the chaff. Poured seed is often chaff-free.
Let cleaned seed air dry for a day or two before storing it in a dry glass jar. Watch out for industrious mice. They can haul away a lot of seed in one night. Actually before you close that jar lid, take a few big pinches of seed and savor them. Now you share with generations of Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Russians, and so many more, the knowledge of how delicious this food is. I know I could have a great time learning how to use 50 kilograms of seed in one year. What a sight to see them in bloom.