Monday, April 16, 2012

A pretty but prickly Florida wildflower

"It's tricky picking pretty prickly poppy plants." Try saying that five times fast.

Argemone albiflora

If you're having difficulty twisting your tongue around the words, it's a lot easier than wrapping your hand around the bristly stems and thistly leaves of this Florida wildflower. Safer, too.

Look but don't touch the white prickly poppy, a roadside wildflower that appears in well-drained, dry sandy locations March through mid-summer.

White prickly poppy (Argemone albiflora) is a Florida native that appears along roadsides when the weather begins to warm in March and continues flouting its showy blooms throughout the early summer months.

Several white prickly poppies growing alongside the highway in Minneola

Rather than growing in sprawling clusters like blanketflower, black-eyed Susan, tickseed or phlox, individual plants have a tendency to pop up in random locations. Along a short stretch of U.S. Highway 27 north of Minneola I've noticed several spots where single prickly poppy plants are growing in the disturbed area between pavement and tree line.

The plants, which stand about 3 feet tall and half as broad, have milky blue stems with sharp needle-like spikes that are responsible for one of its common names, Bluestem prickly poppy. Other nicknames include the equally apt thistle poppy and crested prickly poppy.

Prickly leaves and bristly stems do an excellent job of protecting this pretty wildflower

Regardless of what name it goes by, one thing is certain — ignore prickly poppy and it's happy. Pamper this white-flowered beauty and watch it waste away.

Prickly poppy won't thrive if placed in a garden-like setting with rich, organic matter where it is watered frequently, fertilized and mulched. The environment it needs has dry, well-drained sandy soil in a sunny to partially sunny location.

I find it interesting that such a well-armored, leave-me-alone plant has such pretty, delicate blossoms. The white nearly flat cup-shaped blooms are 2 to 3 inches wide with bright yellow centers. They are easy to notice when driving down the road because they provide a sharp contrast to the green landscape.

Travelers aren't the only ones to notice these warm-weather bloomers. The pollen-rich flowers attract bees and butterflies, but deer and livestock know better than to approach these prickly bloomers because, like other members of the poppy family (Papaveraceae), all parts of white prickly poppy contain highly toxic components.

Break the stem and a white latex sap leaks out.

The ancient Romans, Native Americans and traditional healers in many cultures have used the alkaline liquid, which turns yellow as it dries, to relieve skin ailments like cold sores and warts. However, the sap can also cause irritation and even glaucoma if it gets into the eyes. Similar risks are associated with the plant's seeds, roots and leaves. The seeds have a sedative effect but can also cause vomiting. The flowers and roots have usefulness in treating congestion but only if administered in proper proportions. The entire plant contains too much risk of toxicity for anyone but a trained herbalist to use.

"It's tricky picking pretty prickly poppy plants" is more than a tongue twister — it's a good thing to remember when approaching this roadside beauty.

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