Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
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1997 / Connecticut

Michael Pollan Bleeds a Poppy



Last season was a strange one in my garden, notable not only for the unseasonably cool and wet weather—the talk of gardeners all over New England—but also for its climate of paranoia. One flower was the cause: a tall, breathtaking poppy, with silky scarlet petals and a black heart, the growing of which, I discovered rather too late, is a felony under state and federal law. Actually it’s not quite as simple as that. My poppies were, or became, felonious; another gardener’s might or might not be. The legality of growing opium poppies (whose seeds are sold under many names, including the breadseed poppy, Papaver paeoniflorum, and, most significantly, Papaver somniferum) is a tangled issue, turning on questions of nomenclature and epistemology that it took me the better part of the summer to sort out.

It started out if not quite innocently, then legally enough. Or at least that’s what I thought back in February, when I added a couple of poppy varieties (P. somniferum as well as P. paeoniflorum and P. rhoeas) to my annual order of flowers and vegetables from the seed catalogs. But the state of popular (and even expert) knowledge about poppies is confused, to say the least; mis- and even disinformation is rife. I’d read in Martha Stewart Living that “contrary to general belief, there is no federal law against growing P. somniferum.” Before planting, I consulted my Taylor’s Guide to Annuals, a generally reliable reference that did allude to the fact that “the juice of the unripe pod yields opium, the production of which is illegal in the United States.” But Taylor’s said nothing worrisome about the plants themselves. I figured that if the seeds could be sold legally (and I found somniferum on offer in a half-dozen well-known catalogs, though it was not always sold under that name), how could the obvious next step—i.e., planting the seeds according to the directions on the packet—possibly be a federal offense? Were this the case, you would think there’d at least be a disclaimer in the catalogs.

Winter is when the gardener reads and dreams and draws up schemes for the borders he will plant come spring, and the more I read about what the ancient Sumerians had called “the flower of joy,” the more intriguing the prospect of growing poppies in my garden became, aesthetically as well as pharmacologically. I drifted to the mainstream garden writers, many of whom wrote extravagantly of opium poppies—of their ephemeral outward beauty (for the blooms last but a day or two) and their dark inward mystery.

“Poppies have cast a spell over gardeners and artists for many centuries,” went one typical garden writer’s lead; this was, inevitably, quickly followed by the phrase “dark connotations of the opium poppy.” But nowhere in my reading did I find a clear statement that planting P. somniferum would put a gardener on the wrong side of the law. “When grown in a garden,” one authority on annuals declared, somewhat ambiguously, “the cultivation of P. somniferum is a case of Honi soit qui mal y pense. [Shame to him who thinks evil of it.]” In general the garden writers tended to ignore or gloss over the legal issue and focus instead on the beauty of somniferum, which all concurred was exquisite.

Late in May, a friend who knew of my new horticultural passion sent me a newspaper clipping that briefly stopped me in my tracks. It was a gardening column by C. Z. Guest in the New York Post that carried the headline “Just Say No to Poppies.” Guest wrote that although opium poppy seeds are legal to possess and sell, “The live plants (or even dried, dead ones) fall into the same legal category as cocaine and heroin.” This seemed very hard to believe, and the fact that the source was a socialite writing in a tabloid not known for its veracity made me inclined to disregard it.

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About the Text

From “Opium Made Easy.” Once writing that he plants “certain things because I want to learn certain things,” Pollan published A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder in 1997, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World in 2001, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals in 2006. He currently serves as a professor of journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and his latest book is Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.

That which the sober man keeps in his breast, the drunken man lets out at the lips. Astute people, when they want to ascertain a man’s true character, make him drunk.
Martin Luther, 1569
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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