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Are poppies legal to grow in the garden?

This is an oriental poppy, a legal variety for gardens.
This is an oriental poppy, a legal variety for gardens.
Kim Willis

Do you have illegal poppies in your garden? If you have been going through garden catalogs lately you may have noticed the many poppy varieties being offered, both as seeds and plants. Some of them are quite gorgeous and you may be considering adding them to your garden. But before you add certain poppy varieties to the garden you may want to consider this.

Growing any Papaver sominiferum poppy varieties or the closely related Papaver paeoniflorum varieties (which are just double flowered P.sominiferum) is illegal. The Poppy Control Act of 1942 was repealed in the 70’s but controlling the growing of opium poppy plants was transferred to current laws and regulations on producing or possessing illegal narcotics. You can have the seeds of any of these poppies because the use of poppy seeds in cooking is fine. But cultivation of these species, growing the plants, is illegal and a federal crime. It is also illegal to have dried opium poppy seed pods or stalks on your property.

Still, since so many beautiful varieties are available- and they are offered in so many catalogs - surely this is a crime that is rarely prosecuted? But it seems that recently the DEA has stepped up efforts to get these poppies off the market and prosecute growers. The internet may have had something to do with this.

Making opium from poppies isn’t as hard as once thought

Until recently it was commonly thought that growing poppies to get opium was something hard to do and that the narcotic poppies had to be grown in certain climates. Processing the opium from the poppies was considered to be difficult and not something the average person could do. Even the USDA and the DEA officials shared these ideas with the public. But it seems that some people have always known that opium poppies grow just fine in the US and most of Europe and that it is extremely easy to harvest raw opium from poppy seed pods. It was also easy to produce narcotic concoctions from other poppy plant parts. These people began to share their knowledge on the internet (a quick search on the net will tell you several easy ways to produce opium and other narcotics from poppies), and a pamphlet was written that got the USDA and the DEA’s attention.

Now the DEA is still not scouring gardens for illegal opium poppies and arresting the average gardener but they have begun to use the poppies in creative ways. If some agency suspects you of doing something illegal, they can get a search warrant based on the fact that you are growing opium poppies and might have illegal plant parts or drugs in your house or property. If they want to they can also arrest you for possession of narcotics just because you have some pretty opium poppies in your garden or even some opium poppy seed pods in a dried flower arrangement.

There have been a few interesting cases recently where one disgruntled gardener will turn in a friend growing the poppies and when this is done, law enforcement agencies are required to make an arrest. In most cases a lawyer will successfully argue that you were a naïve gardener and you won’t go to federal prison for manufacturing narcotics. But if there is any evidence that you did know the poppies could produce opium or if you seemed to be storing unusual amounts of seed pods or stalks, or that any poppy seed pods were “scored” ( cut) in your garden you could be in trouble. (You could also be in trouble if you simply pissed someone in charge off because as most of us know- ignorance of the law is generally not considered to be an excuse.)

Michael Pollan, a well-known botanist and garden writer, was thinking along the same lines a few years ago and he did some extensive research on the subject of opium poppy growing for ornamental reasons and he admitted, a curiosity about whether he could actually produce opium at home. Pollan interviewed USDA and DEA people on several occasions and he intensively interviewed the man who wrote the booklet on producing opium at home. This man was arrested and indicted on Federal drug charges soon after the book was brought to the attention of the DEA by a man who was fighting with him. He wasn’t growing any poppies, but he had several dozen dried poppy seed pods in his house that he had purchased from a local florist.

You can read Pollans article here,

It’s a long but fascinating piece. The short version of it is that Pollan concludes that the growing of opium poppy species carries some risk for the gardener. Even using the attractive dried seed pods of the poppy for floral arrangements could be risky. At one time these seed pods were sold in many craft and floral shops. They are the urn shaped pods with “shaker” holes on top. Pollan says the DEA began asking floral organizations to voluntarily stop selling the pods. He also says that certain public gardens were being asked to remove opium poppy species from the gardens.

It’s kind of interesting that catalogs continue to sell seeds and even plants of opium poppy species. Of course seeds would be legal to sell and possess. But in at least one case a seed company was asked to stop selling poppy seeds (Thompson and Morgan) after a “raid” in one garden turned up hundreds of opium poppies and records showed the seed for those poppies was purchased from that company.

So what poppies are legal to grow?

There are poppy species that are legal for gardeners to grow. Papaver rhoeas, Shirley or corn poppies, Papaver orientale, Oriental poppies, and Papaver nudicale or Iceland poppies are all common ornamental and legal poppies, at least for now. There are also plants that use poppy in the common name that are not Papaver species, such as the Himalayan Blue Poppy and the Prickly Poppy which are legal to grow. If you are considering buying any poppies make sure you know the Latin name of the species so you can decide on whether or not you want to buy them.

Opium poppies are annual plants but they readily reseed themselves in the garden. They can persist for years in even neglected gardens. You may have some and not be aware of what you are growing. Most double flowered and pom-pom poppies are opium species and the pretty heritage poppy Danish Flag is also an opium poppy. Perennial Oriental poppies are the poppies most often sold in local garden stores and they are not illegal.

Some gardeners will be fine with taking a chance growing opium poppies, especially if garden catalogs keep offering them. But you may want to avoid them if you have anything to hide or have some bitter enemies. Federal prison is no place for gardeners.

Here are some additional articles you may want to read.

Artemisia – 2014 herb of the year

Great native shrubs

Plant sex secrets

You can contact the author or sign up for her free weekly garden newsletter by writing her at

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