Papaver somniferum - herb and flower

"The whole plant, both leaves, stalks, and heads, while they are fresh, young, and green, yield a milk when they are broken, of an unpleasant bitter taste, almost ready to provoke casting, and of a strong heady smell, which being condensed, is called Opium." - Nicholas Culpeper

The White Poppy (oft called the opium poppy) is indigenous to Asia Minor, and is still cultivated in many parts of the world, notably Turkey, India and China, for opium, although it grows wild in many other parts of the world (In England, it grows on the cliffs on the south coast around Dover).

Culpeper described the plant in his famous Culpeper's Herbal as having

...four or five whitish green leaves lying upon the ground, which rise with the stalk, compassing it at the bottom of them, and are very large, much cut or torn on the edges, and dented also besides. The stalk, which is usually four or five feet high, hath sometimes no branches at the top, and usually but two or three at most, bearing every one but one head wrapped up in a thin skin, which bows down before it is ready to blow, and then rising, and being broken, the flowers within it spreading itself open, and consisting of four very large, white, round leaves.

This is as good as any description I could give - the plant is certainly quite a monster to anyone familiar with the wild poppy (aka corn poppy) of Northern Europe, growing sometimes as high as six feet. The leaves are ragged in appearance, and the flower stalks are 3 - 4mm thick, covered in coarse hairs. The flowers themselves are large, up to four inches across, and vary quite widely in colour, often having a lilac tinge, and ranging to quite a pretty pink, tinged with violet at the centre of the flower.

Their rough, lanky appearance makes them ideal for the more random and wild cottage garden, and they certainly add a splash of colour at the back of a border. They grow in almost any soil, even the poorest, although my experience suggests that open soils help them to do better.


White poppies were first grown commercially in the UK in 1794, by one John Ball of Williton. His goal was to produce opium for use by apothecaries - laudanum as well as opium were in a great deal of demand. Both drugs were available for sale, quite legally, until the early 20th Century - Harrods of London openly sold heroin and opium until anti-drug laws were passed during the First World War!

When cultivated for medicine, the plants are allowed to mature and produce their fruit - large, three-quarter-spherical green, bulbous affairs around an inch (25mm) diameter. When cut, these ooze a latex-like susbtance containing a variety of alkaloids, principally morphine, but also narcotine, codeine, thebaine, narceine, papaverine, codamine and rhoeadine.

The flower gardener will dead-head the flowers once they are finished, to encourage new flower growth, the flower arranger will allow the heads to dry to leave a large mid-brown "pepper pot" head, sometimes slightly ribbed along the sides, the top having the delightful appearance of a small gear cog, from which the poppy seed may be shaken.

The crop is not much grown for medicinal use in Europe now, most sources of pharmaceutical opium being Far Eastern countries.

The white poppy is also connected with the more traditional, red Remembrance Poppy, and represents a call for peace as well as remembrance - see bipolarbear's writeup on that topic.

Encyclopædia Britannica

"Wear a White poppy for peace this Remembrance Day"

The White Poppy is an alternative to the British Legion's red Poppy Appeal poppy, worn on and around November 11th each year. Due to its origins and associations, it is controversial - however is growing in popularity since its creation in 1933. To those who wear it the White Poppy is a symbol of peace and an expression of the desire to prevent future wars: "the White Poppy symbolises that there are better ways to resolve conflicts than killing strangers".

The origins of the White Poppy

The White Poppy was first thought of in 1926 when members of the No More War movement suggested that the red poppies should have a pacifist inscription in the centre, or that pacifists should wear a different symbol as red poppies seemed to glorify past wars. The idea was not really taken up until the Women's Cooperative Guild decided to embark on a peace and nonviolence campaign, having lost brothers, fathers and sons during the First World War. In 1933 the women of the guild produced the first wreath of white poppies. Money from selling these white poppies was sent to all parts of Europe to fund pacifist campaigns. In 1936 the Peace Pledge Union adopted the White Poppy as a symbol that "war must not happen again". Two years later, pacifists held the first alternative remembrace service on Armistice Day. Since then, the White Poppy has been produced and sold by the Peace Pledge Union.

What does the White Poppy mean?

The white poppy is controversial as many people see it as disrespectful to war veterans. The red poppy symbolises respect and honour for dead soldiers and proceeds from their sales go towards caring for veterans of war. To therefore have a white poppy that looks down upon wars and violence seems to belittle the sacrifice made by those who were killed in wars. The Peace Pledge Union makes a distinction between glorification of war and death - which it believes is inherently wrong - and remembrance of the dead and prevention of future wars:

The fate of 'our glorious dead' was desperately sad, but the word 'glorious' gave it grandeur. The idea that these British soldiers had 'given' their lives was sad (and misleading, considering the real events); the word 'sacrifice' gave the idea nobility. But there is nothing characteristically grand or noble about war. War makes everybody, living or dead, its victims. War makes people all over the world bring needless death upon themselves and the people they care about (as well as those they don't). To interpret slaughter as sacrifice is to turn away from what is true and real, in search of a comforting dream.
Such a sentiment is not designed as an insult to those who were killed in, or survivors of, war. It is simply the desire to prevent others from having to 'sacrifice' their lives in future conflicts.

Since the mid 1980s the White Poppy has had a huge growth in popularity. It is not designed to compete with the red poppy, and many people now wear them side by side in order to express respect for veterans and a desire for future peace. There are still problems, however: on Armistice Day in 1986 members of the British Legion shouted abuse at anti-war activists when they were laying down their white wreath, and many veterans and others feel insulted by White Poppies. The PPU does its best to educate people about what the White Poppy stands for, in order to reduce this conflict. In their own words, the White Poppy is simply

A symbol of grief for all people of all nationalities, armed forces and civilians alike, who are victims of war.
For all those who have died or are dying in wars
For all those who have died or are dying as resources to feed or house them have gone to war preparations
For all those who will die until we learn to live in peace
When shall we ever learn?

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