Breadseed or opium poppy, Papaver somniferum

Papaver somniferum in bloom.

Native to Southeastern Europe and Western Asia, breadseed poppy, Papaver somniferum was cultivated in Europe since the Neolithic era and in America as ornamental plants before 1750. This plant contains narcotic alkaloids which are the active compounds of opium and many refined opiates, such as morphine and codeine. Somniferum – meaning “sleep bringing” in Latin – refers to the narcotic properties of the plant. Most of the medicinal opium in the world is produced in India and Turkey. Opium is extracted primarily from the seed capsules. The edible seeds are widely used in baked goods such as bagels, muffins and cakes, and since they contain 40- 50% oil can be pressed for oil for cooking – similar to sesame oil – or for use in oil-based paints.

The tiny poppy seeds (L) have a reticulate seed coat when viewed up close (R).

Some plants have high alkaloid content and are grown to produce opium or medicinal drugs. Most of the horticultural types (for ornamental use or seed production) were selected for their appearance and may contain only trace amounts of alkaloids, but some can have the same morphine content as those grown for opium. As a Schedule 2 controlled substance, it is technically illegal to grow P. somniferum in the United States, but typically this is not enforced for poppies grown as ornamentals.

Breadseed poppy plants grow quickly from seed up to three feet tall. They are hardy, cool season annuals, germinating early in the season and the foliage is not affected by light frosts (the flowers are sensitive to freezing). The dull green to blue-green, glaucous leaves clasp the strong upright stems growing from a stout tap root. The smooth leaves have jagged edges and a crisp texture, resembling loose-leaf lettuce leaves. The foliage begins to decline once the plant is in bloom, and by the time the flowers are done will dry up completely.

Seedling with seed coat still on cotyledon (L), seedlings with first set of true leaves (LC), young plants (C and RC), and developing plant before blooming (R).

Single types have luminous, papery petals.

Blooming in early- to mid-summer, this common annual can have flowers in many shades of pink, red and purple, as well as white and bicolors. Single types have 5 luminous, papery petals, while double types have many more. Singles or partly double forms form a cup shape, with a dark or white blotch at the base. Flowers on large plants can be up to 4 inches across. The paeoniflorum group has double flowers that are reminiscent of a peony and the laciniatum group has highly double flowers with deeply lobed petals that give the flower a ruffled, pompon appearance.

Many forms of Papaver somniferum have dark blotches at the base of the cup of petals.

Fat, dull-green, buds covered with soft hairs start out hanging from downward-nodding stems, like a shepherd’s crook, but become erect as the sepals open to reveal the tightly packed petals. The sepals typically fall off the plant, but occasionally will remain attached at the base of the flower. The plants are self-fertile, and are pollinated by bees. The flowers can be used as cut flowers, lasting longer if the cut stem is cauterized before placing in water.

Flower bud emerging from middle of plant (L), growing hanging down (L), then starting to straighten up (RC) as the sepals open (R).

Flower bud of a pink highly double (lacinatum group) opening (L), expanding (LC), at peak bloom (RC) and petals shattering (R).

In a few days the petals fall off, leaving behind an ovoid seed capsule. The green capsules swell to become up to as large as a golf ball. They turn brown as they mature. Each seed capsule contains numerous small, round black, white, or grayish-blue seeds with a favose-reticulate (honeycombed) seed coat. Large capsules can contain up to a thousand seeds. When ripe, several vents develop at the top of the capsule to allow the seeds to be dispersed. Dried mature seed capsules can be used in floral arrangements and crafts.

The petals fall off (L) to reveal a fat green capsule (LC) which eventually dries and turns brown as small vents open at the top (RC). The seed inside the capsule turns from white (top R) to brown (bottom R), then black as it matures.

Plant breadseed poppies in annual or mixed beds for colorful flowers in summer.

Use breadseed poppy in annual or mixed beds for its attractive foliage early in the season and the colorful flowers in the summer. They are bests mixed in with other plants which will disguise the senescing foliage as they finish blooming or will fill in after the plants are removed. They can also be grown in larger containers that provide enough room for good development.

Breadseed poppy is very easy to grow in full sun in well-drained soil. Plant rarely need staking, especially if spaced properly to allow for robust development. They have few pests other than aphids on occasion.

Breadseed poppy self sows readily, so deadhead or prepare to remove lots of seedlings.

Breadseed poppies are easy to grow in full sun.

As annuals, poppies are only grown from seed, and self-sow readily. They do best sown directly in the desired location in either early spring or late summer/fall to germinate the following spring. Sprinkle the small gray, black or brown seeds on prepared soil, but do not cover. Mixing the seeds with some sand makes it easier to spread them more evenly over the planting area as you can see where you’ve broadcast them. Seeds should germinate in about a week or two in early spring. They germinate better in cool soil, so seeding later in the spring often is unsuccessful. They can also be started indoors if necessary, but need to be kept cooler than room temperature to do well. Once the seedlings are about an inch tall, thin the plants to about a foot apart. Remove the smallest plants (pull or cut off the tops), or transplant carefully, trying to disturb the roots as little as possible as they have very sensitive root systems and do not transplant well. Plants growing closer together will be small, weak, and produce fewer and much smaller flowers.

To reduce volunteers, deadhead before the seed capsules turn brown (or pull out the entire plant after flowering, but often larger plants are still producing flower buds when the first seed capsules are ripening). To save seed, invert opened capsules into a container. To sow in another area, just cut off the opened capsules and shake them over the new area.

There are many heirloom varieties that are passed along without a name other than the color. But there are many named varieties which can be purchased, including these examples (and many more):

  • ‘Black Widow’ has deep purple, fully double flowers.
  • ‘Cherry Glow’ has large, scarlet petals and decorative seed heads excellent for use in dried arrangements.
  • Double Raspberry Blush ‘Plaza de Rito’ is a deep pink double flower with a frilly center.
  • ‘Flemish Antique’ has fully double flowers in shades of red, rose and striped creamy white.
  • Fluffy Ruffles is a mixture of ‘Crimson Feathers’, ‘Rose Feathers’ and ‘Swansdown’, all having  deeply laciniated petals resembling a pompom in crimson, rose and white.
  • ‘Frosted Salmon’ has orangy-pink petals that fade along the edges with age.
  • ‘Hens and Chickens’ produces one main pod surrounded by masses of smaller pods giving the impression of a mother hen and chicks.
  • ‘Swansdown’ is a white laciniatum type.
  • ‘Venus’ is a laciniatum type with large fringed petals of rosy red with white on the underside at the base of the petals.
  • ‘White Cloud’ is a paeoniflorum type with extra-large, pure white double flowers.

Papaver somniferum may have flowers in various shades of red, pink, purple and white, and in single, double and highly double forms (the varieties pictured were unnamed).

Poppies hybridize easily, so if trying to save specific varieties, plant them far apart or cover the flowers with small bags as they open to prevent cross pollination (but you may need to hand pollinate by moving the pollen from the anthers to the stigma with a small brush).

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison

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  1. I have poppies that I got the seeds from my parent’s house in MN. We have had a huge success with the seeds and actually have to pull up some of the seedlings along with deadhead. My daughter has collected the seeds and would like to cook with them. They look like the bread seed type, but how do I know for sure. Are all types of poppy seeds safe to eat?
    Thank you for your help!

  2. Wonderful writing and very inspiring. From it I learn many more. I hope it will help everyone who reads it, Thanks a lot for nice writing. Best of luck.

  3. A helpful tip for anyone trying to grow these beautiful flowers or starting any (or most) kinds of flowers /plants from seed . What I have done in the past and still do with great success is after initial planting and even before i notice the first sprouts coming from the soil i put a 16oz or 20oz clear plastic cup with a few pinholes in the bottom and top over the small seedling. This helps to keep moisture in the soil for the first critical weeks and creates a miniature personalised greenhouse. I keep the cups over the plants until the plant is too big to be covered then let nature do its thing. I’ve had great success with this both inside and outside. The poppy in particular needs maximum sunlight, I’ve planted them in partial sun to mostly shade and zero success. The only time I have been able to grow them to a mature flower is in full sun to minimal shad areas, I find that a south facing window will allow them to be grown anytime of year also.

  4. I have had the peach colored poppies. Lovely! But they do not last in the wind. I need a more sheltered spot. Same problem with the red. I have tried moving them but the roots are determined to troccur in the same windy place and the transplants have not taken. I will keep trying with more thoughtful placement and seeding as in the article.

  5. In the first row of this picture, in the top right corner, that is NOT a breadseed (Papaver somniferum) poppy. Instead, it’s a Shirley (Papaver rhoeas) poppy.

  6. I didn’t remember seeing white ones, but that would be beautiful. I have some pink singles and doubles every year and have experienced the factors mentioned here–now I know how to do them even better, however. One tip: I prefer singles because they provide that wonderful splash of color while the doubles have sometimes provided Japanese beetles a lot of cover while they burrow deeply in the petals and I can hardly pull them out without ruining the flower.

  7. Most of the poppies I’ve seen around the Wind Point Lighthouse are on the north side of the driveway, and they are the perennials. I never would’ve thought to plant them from seed, so I might give it a try next year. I love the different colors – most of the ones I’ve seen are either pink or red.

  8. Very interesting seed pod. Many different varieties. Not to be planted in the same garden so colors stay true.

  9. I particularly like the varieties that look ruffled. I think breadseed would be too difficult to grow in my poor soil.

  10. I never thought to use the dried seed capsules in flower arrangement, neat idea. My sister in law gave me some seeds a few years ago, now I enjoy my poppies every spring. I have them planted on the east side of my house, they just get morning sun and seem to like it. My neighbor enjoys them more than I do, as shes them more than I do.

  11. I learned that there are double poppies and many different colors. Great to learn when to spread seeds for the best sucess

  12. I have grown pink (double petal variety) and purple poppies in my gardens. I found transplanting established plants very difficult. As this article states, they have very sensitive root systems. They are better off being started from seed in the desired location.

  13. The article was very interesting. I am familiar with the typical red single poppy but did not know about the double variety nor all the different colors or the fact that they are grown from seed as annuals.

  14. I have the double red ones, not pictured here, but an easy self-seeder and very striking. I have found them to be difficult to move, so I just let them be wherever they appear, since they are an annual anyway. It’s fun to harvest the seed and they provide a multitude! I do get a bit nervous over the official legality, however.

  15. I didn’t know they are illegal to grow but that it is usually not enforced when used as an ornamental. Are these different from the perennial? Is the perennial illegal to grow as well? I think I may have grown the annual a few times, but mostly just enjoy my orange perennial.

  16. I love poppies and are envious of people who can grow them. I have tried many times in the past and typically only get small plants with small flowers, even though the seed stock from which they grew were fantastic poppies.

    • In a rented house garden with sandy and poor soil there were tiny poppies around 2 inches high with tiny pale orange flowers. When I moved, I took some seeds with me and planted them in rich soil, with compost and blood and bone. Lo and behold, the poppies grew a couple of feet high, with bright red flowers and black spots in the middle. Just goes to show, genetics respond to environment.

  17. I loved this article. I was only familiar with the red and orange ones not the other colors or the double doubles or the “breadseed” term. I used to grow mine in Racine area and they would self seed. I never thought to collect the seeds by inverting the seed capsules. That is a great way to do it and you can be sure of where they will come up. the article stated that they are annuals but my experience is that on the south side of a house that is heavily mulched and drainage is good. They would come back each year. Now that I am living by a lakeshore in Fond du Lac County, I am not confident that I could find a good place to plant them except by the edge of the driveway. Good article and good read.

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