Its 120-odd species include the opium poppy and corn poppy. These are annual, biennial and perennial hardy, frost-tolerant plants growing natively in the temperate climates of Eurasia, Africa and North America (Canada, Alaska, Rocky Mountains). One section of the genus (Section Meconella) has an alpine and circumpolar arctic distribution and includes some of the most northerly-growing vascular land plants.
Papaver grows in disturbed soil. Its seeds may lay dormant for years until the soil is disturbed. Then they bloom in great numbers under cool growing conditions.
The large, showy terminal flowers grow on long, hairy stalks, to a height of even 1m or more as in the Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale). Their color vary from the deepest crimson, lilac, or white, or violet, to bright yellow or soft pink. The tissue-paper-like flowers may be single, double or semi-double. The size of these flowers can be amazing, as the Iceland Poppy (Papaver nudicaule) grows to 15-20 cm across.
The flower buds are nodding or bent downwards, turning upwards as they are opening. There are two layers. The outer layer of two sepals drops off as the bud opens. The inner layer consists of 4 (but sometimes 5 or 6) petals. There are many stamens in several whorls around a single pistil.
Poppies have a long history. They were already grown as ornamental plants since 5,000 BC in Mesopotamia. They were found in Egyptian tombs. In Greek mythology, the poppy was associated with Demeter, goddess of fertility and agriculture. People believed they would get a bountiful crop if poppies grew in their field, hence the name 'corn poppy'. In this case, the name 'corn' was derived from 'korn', the Greek word for 'grain'.
They are also sold as cut flowers in flower arrangements, especially the Iceland Poppy. They deserve a prominent place in any garden, border, or in meadow plantings. They are probably one of the most popular wildflowers.
In the course of history, poppies have always been attributed important medicinal properties. The alkaloid rhoeadine is derived from the flowers of the Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas). This is used as mild sedative. The stems contain a latex or milky sap. This may cause skin irritation, and the milky sap present in the Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum) contains several narcotic alkaloids including morphine and codeine.