poppy, common name for some members of the Papaveraceae, a family composed chiefly of herbs of the Northern Hemisphere having a characteristic milky or colored sap. Most species are native to the Old World; many are cultivated in gardens for their brilliantly colored if short-lived blossoms. Many of the species have several varieties and show a wide range of colors, especially in red, yellow, and white shades.
The true poppy genus is Papaver, but many flowers of related genera are also called poppies. The most frequently cultivated are the Oriental poppy ( P. orientale ), usually bearing a large scarlet flower with a purplish black base, and the corn poppy ( P. rhoeas ) and its variety, the Shirley poppy. Other well-known species include the arctic Iceland poppy ( P. nudicaule ), the celandine poppy ( Stylophorum diphyllum ) of North America, and the cream cups ( Platystemon californica ) and California poppy, or eschscholtzia ( Eschscholtzia californica ), of the W United States (the latter is the state flower of California).
The Old World greater celandine ( Chelidonium majus ), also called swallowwart or wartweed, was formerly believed efficacious in removing warts and in restoring failing eyesight. (The lesser celandine is an unrelated plant of the buttercup family.) The orange-red sap of the bloodroot ( Sanguinaria canadensis ), an early spring wildflower of E North America, was used by Native Americans as a dye and skin stain. This and many other members of the family are employed for various medicinal purposes.
Economically, the most important plant in the family is the opium poppy ( P. somniferum ), now widely cultivated from Europe to East Asia. The milky sap of its unripe seed pods is the source of opium and several other similar drugs, e.g., morphine, codeine, and heroin. Poppyseed, also called maw seed, is not narcotic; used as birdseed and for a flavoring or garnish in baking, it is also ground for flour. Poppy oil, derived from the seeds, is employed in cooking and illumination and in paints, varnishes, and soaps.
The poppy has been the symbol of the dead and of sleep since antiquity. The poppies of "Flanders fields" are celebrated in a poem by John McCrae and are the Memorial Day or Armistice Day (Veterans' Day in the United States) emblem of World War veterans. Poppies are classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Papaverales, family Papaveraceae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.