What is an Oriental Poppy?

Alex Tree

The Oriental poppy, or Papaver orientale, is a flowering perennial plant that belongs to the genus Papaver, under the Papaveraceae, or poppy, family. Measuring 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 m) tall and 2 feet (0.6 m) wide, the plant has hairy leaves and is grown in gardens for its colorful flowers. This poppy species is native to the meadows and lower mountain zones of west and central Asia, particularly in the countries of Armenia, Iran, and Turkey. It can also be found in the fields, clearings, and roadsides in the places where it has been introduced for cultivation as a garden plant.

Oriental poppy plants can withstand periods of drought.
Oriental poppy plants can withstand periods of drought.

With naturally bright orange-red flowers, selective breeding has produced varieties of the Oriental poppy with flowers bearing near white, salmon pink, and light orange petals. Most cultivars retain the pale to dark spots at the base of this poppy’s flowers. The blooming period is usually in the summer months of May and June. After this period, the plant will go dormant, a survival mechanism that allowed it to survive the summer droughts in its native habitat of central Asia. Its flowers are very attractive to bees, which aid in their pollination.

The hairy leaves of the Oriental poppy measure around 14 inches (35 cm) long and grow on simple and rarely branching stems with the same pale bristly covering. It produces seedpods that appear after it has moved into its dormant stage. The seeds ripen in July and August and are harvested for replanting or for cooking. Leaving them on the pods will attract birds that feast on the seeds.

Oriental poppies are easily grown either by sowing the seeds in spring or through plant division in summer or early fall. Its running roots can also grow into a new plant when left undisturbed. This plant prefers well-drained sandy or loamy soils that are acidic to neutral. It will grow best when given full sun exposure but can also grow in partial shade. Tolerant to drought and soils with poor nutrition, it will not grow well in very moist soil.

Mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes, the Oriental poppy also has medicinal and culinary uses. The petals are said to be diaphoretic, and thus may be used to induce perspiration or sweating. Its seeds may also be baked or steamed and then crushed to release their nutty flavor before they are added to baked foods such as bagels, breads, and cakes. Caution is advised when harvesting the seeds for culinary use, as there are several similar-looking species in the genus that may be toxic to mammals.

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