Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Cultivated Plants by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Cultivated Plants by  Anna Botsford Comstock



Drawn by Anna C. Stryke.

The Poppies

Teacher's Story

Perhaps we might expect that a plant which gives strange dreams to those who eat of its juices should not be what it seems in appearance. I know of nothing so deceptive as the appearance of the poppy buds, which, rough and hairy, droop so naturally that it seems as if their weight must compel the stem to bend; and yet, if we test it, we find the stem is as stiff as if made of steel wire. Moreover, the flower and the ripened seed-capsule must be far heavier than the bud; and yet, as soon as the flower is ready to open, the stem straightens up, although it does not always remove the traces of the crook; and after the capsule is full of ripened seed, the stem holds it up particularly stiff, as if inviting the wind to shake out the seeds.

The rough covering of the bud consists of two sepals, as can be easily seen; but if we wish to see the poppy shed its sepals, we must get up in the morning, for the deed is usually done as soon as the first rays of the early sun bring their message of a fair day. The sepals break off at their base and fall to the ground. The two opposite outer petals unfold, leaving the two inner petals standing erect and on guard about the precious pollen, until the sunshine folds them back. An open poppy, when looked at below, shows two petals, each semicircular, and overlapping each other slightly; looked at from above, we see two petals, also half circles, set at right angles to the lower two, and divided from each other by the pistil.

The pistil of the poppy is, from the beginning, a fascinating box. At first, it is a vase with a round, circular cover, upon which are ridges, placed like the spokes of a wheel. If these ridges are looked at with a lens, particles of pollen may be seen adhering to them; this fact reveals the secret that each ridge is a stigma, and all of these radiating stigmas are joined so as better to catch the pollen. In a circle of fringe about the pistil are the stamens. In the study of the stamens, we should note whether their filaments expand or dilate near the anthers, and we should also note the color of the masses of pollen which crowd out from the anthers.


The poppy seed-shaker.

Drawn by Anna C. Stryke.

Despite the many varieties of poppies, there are only four species commonly cultivated. The opium poppy has upon its foliage a white bloom, the filaments of its stamens are dilated at the top, and its seed-capsule is smooth. The oriental poppy has all of these characters, except that its foliage is green and not covered with bloom. Its blossom is scarlet and very large and has a purple center in the petals and purple stamens; it has three sepals. Its flower stalks are stout and leafy. The corn poppy, which grows in the fields of Europe, is a weed we gladly cultivate. This, naturally, has red petals and is dark at the center of the flower; but it has been changed by breeding until now we have many varieties. Its foliage is finely cut and very bristly or hairy. Its seed-capsule is not bristly. To see this poppy at its best, we should visit northern Italy or southern France in late May, where it makes the grain fields gorgeous. This is the original parent of all the Shirley poppies. The Arctic, or Iceland poppy, has flowers of satiny texture and finely crumpled; its colors are yellow, orange or white, but never scarlet like the corn poppy; it has no leaves on its flower stem, and its seed-capsule is hairy. Of these four species, the opium poppy and the corn poppy are annuals, while the Arctic and the Oriental species are perennials.

The bees are over-fond of the poppy pollen and it is a delight to watch the fervor with which they simply wallow in it, brushing off all of the grains possible onto their hairy bodies. I have often seen a honey-bee seize a bunch of the anthers and rub them against the under side of her body, meanwhile standing on her head in an attitude of delirious joy. As showing the honey-bee's eye for color, I have several times seen a bee drop to the ground to examine a red petal which had fallen. This was plain evidence that she trusted to the color to guide her to the pollen.

But perhaps it is the development of the poppy seed-capsule which we find the most interesting of the poppy performances. After fertilization, the stigma-disk develops a scalloped edge, a stigma rounding out the point of each scallop; and a sharp ridge, which continues the length of the globular capsule, runs from the center of each scallop. If examined on the inside, it will be seen that the ridge on the capsule is the edge of a partition which extends only part way toward the center of the capsule. On these partitions, the little seeds are grown in great profusion, and when they ripen, they fall together in the hollow center of the seed-box. But how are they to get out? This is a point of interest for the children to observe, and they should watch the whole process. Just beneath the stigma-disk, and between each two of the sharp ridges, the point loosens; later, it turns outward and back, leaving a hole which leads directly into the central hollow portion of the capsule. The way these points open is as pretty a story as I know in flower history. This beautiful globular capsule, with its graceful pedestal where it joins the stem, is a seed-shaker instead of a salt or pepper-shaker. Passing people and animals push against it and the stiff stem bends and then springs back, sending a little shower of seeds this way and that; or a wind sways the stalk, and the seeds are sown, a few at a time, and in different conditions of season and weather. Thus, although the poppy puts all her eggs in one basket, she sends them to market a few at a time. The poppy seed is a pretty object, as seen through the lens. It is shaped like a round bean, and is covered with a honey comb network.

Lesson CLV

The Poppy

Leading thought—The poppies shed their sepals when the flowers expand; they offer quantities of pollen to the bees, which are very fond of it. The seed-capsule develops holes around the top, through which the seeds are shaken, a few at a time.

Method—It is best to study these flowers in the garden, but the lesson may be given if some of the plants with the buds are brought to the schoolroom, care being taken that they do not droop. If the teacher thinks wise, the pupils might prepare an English theme on the subject of the opium poppy and the terrible effects of opium upon the eastern nations.


1. Look at the bud of the poppy; how is it covered? How many sepals? Can you see where they unite? Is the stem bent because the bud is heavy? What happens to this crook in the stem when the flower opens? Does the crook always straighten out completely?

2. Describe how the poppy sheds its sepals. At what time of day do the poppies usually open?

3. Look at the back of, or beneath, an open flower. How many petals do you see? How are they arranged? Look at the base of the flower. How many petals do you see? How are they arranged in relation to the lower petals and to the pistil?

4. Look at the globular pistil. Describe the disk which covers it. How many ridges on this disk? How are they arranged? Look at the ridges with a lens and tell what they are.

5. Look at the stamens. How are they arranged? Describe the anthers—their color, and the color of the pollen. Watch the bees working on the poppies, and note if they are after nectar or pollen.

6. Find all the varieties of poppies possible, and note the colors of the petals on the outside, the inside and at the base; of the stamens, including filaments, anthers and pollen; of the pistil-disk and ovary. Sketch the poppy opened, and also in the bud. Sketch a petal, a stamen and the pistil, in separate studies.

7. Study the poppy seed-box as it ripens. How does the stigma-disk look? What is the shape of the capsule below the disk? Is it ridged? What relation do its ridges bear to the stigma ridges on the disk? Cut a capsule open, and note what these ridges on the outside have to do with the partitions inside. Where are the seeds borne?

8. Note the development of the holes beneath the edge of the disk of the poppy capsule. How are they made? What are they for? How are the seeds shaken from these holes? What shakes the poppy seed-box and helps sow the seeds? Look at a seed through a lens, and describe its form and decoration.

9. Notice the form of the poppy leaf, and note whether it is hairy or covered with bloom. What is there peculiar about the smell of the poppy plant? Where do poppies grow wild?

10. Is the slender stem smooth or grooved and hairy? Is it solid or hollow?

11. When a stem or leaf is pierced or broken off, what is the color of the juice which exudes? Does this juice taste sweet or bitter and unpleasant? Do you know what harmful drug is manufactured from the juice of one species of poppy? What countries cultivate and use it most extensively?

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