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What Is a Prickly Poppy?

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  • Written By: Jessica Reed
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2014
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Prickly poppy is the name for roughly 32 different species in the poppy family under the genus Argemone, which grow mainly in mainland United States and on the island of Hawaii. Flowers bloom in white or yellow colors and the leaves and stems of the flower are covered in prickly spikes, which give the prickly poppy its name. Out of the 32 species, the Argemone munita, Argemone mexicana, and Argemone corymbosa are the most well known. Plants in the poppy family are recognized by the red, yellow, or white sap-like juice they produce and the large, colorful blossoms ranging from four to six petals in total. Before blooming, the top of the seed pod is filled with holes through which the seeds are released.

Unlike the bright red flowers people often imagine when they hear the word poppy, the prickly poppy is limited to vibrant shades of white and yellow. The most common out of the different prickly poppy plants is Argemone mexicana. This version of the plant comes from Mexico and was called the “nourishment of the dead“ by the Aztecs. They used the plant in ritual sacrifices made to the many Aztec gods. The plant was also used for its mild sedative-like effects when parts of it were smoked or mixed into a tea.

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Argemone mexicana has pale yellow leaves that may darken in color near the center. The oil found inside the petals takes on a yellow tint as well. The leaves resemble large, pointed thorns and the oil is considered toxic if ingested. The thorn-like protrusions help discourage animals from eating this dangerous flower. Certain healers still use parts of the plant to help treat medical conditions ranging from jaundice to malaria, though concerns arise from the possibility of accidental poisoning during treatments, which require the victim to drink the plant's toxic oil.

Another common prickly poppy is the Argemone munita. It originated in California and spread to surrounding desert areas. It grows tall with thorn-like protrusions that come from the lengthy green stem. It blooms white with a bright yellow center.

The Argemone corymbosa, the third well-known type of prickly poppy, occurs in the southwestern region of the United States. It too features white petals with a yellow center. Unlike the Argemone munita, which traditionally has six petals, the Argemone corymbosa only has four petals. Its stem and leaves usually appear softer and less pointed than those of the Argemone munita.

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