Poppies, lilacs, and lilies

Spring and early summer are the blooming seasons for the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, which blankets fields and hillsides (and open spaces on the Stanford campus) in yellow and orange:



The compound California poppy is subsective: a California poppy is a poppy — as the word poppy is used in ordinary English, and in fact as it is used by botanists speaking informally. So California poppy contrasts maximally with California lilac, which is not a lilac in the eyes of ordinary speakers or botanists; California lilac is a resembloid compound rather than a subsective one. Daylily presents an intermediate case: it’s not subsective for botanists or for many ordinary speakers — for these people, a daylily is not a lily — but it is for some ordinary speakers.

Poppies. Wikipedia on the poppy:

The Poppy is an angiosperm or flowering plant of the family Papaveraceae. Ornamental poppies are grown for their colorful flowers; some varieties of poppy are used as food, whilst other varieties produce the powerful medicinal alkaloid opium which has been used since ancient times to create analgesic and narcotic medicinal and recreational drugs.

… Poppies belong to genera of Papaveraceae, which includes: Papaver – corn poppy, Opium poppy, Oriental poppy, Iceland poppy, and about 120 other species; Eschscholzia – California poppy and relatives; Meconopsis – Welsh poppy, Nepal poppy, and relatives; Stylophorum – Celandine poppy or wood poppy; Argemone – Prickly poppy; Romneya – Matilija poppy and relatives; Canbya – Pygmy poppy; Stylomecon – Wind poppy; Arctomecon – desert bearpaw poppy; Hunnemannia – Tulip poppy; Dendromecon – Tree poppy

In the usage of this article, poppy refers not only to the “type genus” Papaver of the family Papaveraceae, but also to plants in the family in general. Here’s the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) growing luxuriantly in Afghanistan:


Closer to home (from this blog in 2009):

Does … growing Papaver somniferum, a staple of some American and European gardens, count [as engaging in a criminal agricultural enterprise]? This is the “opium poppy”, so called because opium is derived from the plant’s seed capsules when they are green. (The mature capsules, dried, are often used in dried arrangements, and the seeds are the familiar poppy seed used in baking (from which the alternative common name “breadbox poppy”.)

We cultivated this gratifying annual flower in our garden in Columbus, Ohio, where we started with several named varieties of very specific colors — the Sunset Western Garden Book (2001 edition) lists “white, pink, red, purple, deep plum” — which then hybridized and mutated to yield intermediate shades, plus striped and streaked and spotted variants, some flowers with fringed petals, some single and some double. Every summer brought new surprises.

(Eschscholzia californica also comes in in multi-colored varieties, which hybridize freely.)

Two other poppy genera with beautiful flowers: Meconopsis (blue poppies) and Romneya (the largest poppies):

Meconopsis is a genus of flowering plants in the family Papaveraceae. It was first described by French botanist Viguier in 1814 who named it as poppy-like (gr. Mekon poppy, Opsis alike). The species have attractive flowers and have two distinct ranges. A single species, Meconopsis cambrica (Welsh Poppy), is indigenous to England, Wales, Ireland, and the fringes of Western Europe, although recent studies suggest that it does not belong in the genus. The other 40 or so (depending on classification) species are found in the Himalayas. Within the Himalayan types there is much debate as to what constitutes a particular species as many readily hybridise with each other and produce viable seed. It is likely that some individually named species are in fact a single species but with an under-appreciated morphological diversity. (link)

Meconopsis betonicifolia (from the Himalayas originally):


Romneya … is a genus of flowering plants belonging to the poppy family (Papaveraceae). There are two species in genus Romneya, which was named for Irish astronomer John Thomas Romney Robinson. They are known commonly as Matilija poppies … or tree poppies and are native to southern California and northern Mexico.

They are perennial subshrubs with woody stems. They may grow to a height of 2.5 meters (8 ft) and a width of 1 m (35 in), with the flowers up to 13 cm (5 in) across. The silvery green leaves are deeply cut, with a small fringe of hairs at the margins.

They are notable for their large white flowers with intense yellow centers, blooming in summer. Romneya produce the largest flowers of any members of the poppy family. (link)

Romneya coulteri:


(There’s a gorgeous stand of Romneya now blooming outside a house about half a mile from mine.)

OED3 (Dec. 2006) on poppy, treating the word as having both a narrow and a broad sense:

Etymology:  < classical Latin papāver (neuter) poppy

Any of various herbaceous plants constituting the genus Papaver (family Papaveraceae), mostly native to the northern hemisphere, which have milky latex often with narcotic properties, showy solitary flowers with four delicate-textured petals, and a seed capsule opening by terminal pores; spec. any of several plants of this genus occurring as arable weeds, esp. corn poppy, P. rhoeas, noted for its bright scarlet flowers. Also: a plant of any other genus of the family Papaveraceae. [attested from Old English on]

The earliest quots. refer to the opium poppy, P. somniferum, with white or purple flowers, long valued for its medicinal and narcotic properties.

What’s interesting in the word poppy is that it’s used as an ordinary English name (and an informal botanical label) for a category of plants that’s considerably larger than the type species, Papaver somniferum, or the type genus, Papaver. But this larger category is a natural category as well as a conceptual one. In the next case, the use of a label picks out something that is neither a natural category nor (so far as I can tell) a conceptual one for any speakers of English.

Lilacs. From a 2006 Language Log posting on resembloid compounds:

In the larger class of [resembloid] compounds …, the denotation of A+B doesn’t involve (the denotation of B) directly, but rather picks out a class of things r() that RESEMBLE the things in in some specific way; (A+B)´ is then a subset of r() — rather than of — related in some way to . Let’s get concrete: look at daylily, rockrose, and California lilac (three types of plants that are all over the place here in northern California).

A daylily (genus Hemerocallis) is not a lily (genus Lilium), but it looks pretty much like one. A rockrose (genus Cistus) is not a rose (genus Rosa), but its flowers are very rose-like. A California lilac (genus Ceanothus) is not a lilac (genus Syringa), but it’s a shrubby plant with lilac-colored flowers in clusters; that is, a California lilac is a lilac-like plant that’s connected in some way to California.

On the so-called California lilac:

Ceanothus L. … is a genus of about 50–60 species of shrubs or small trees in the family Rhamnaceae. The genus is confined to North America, with the center of its distribution in California. Some species (e.g. C. americanus) are found in the eastern United States and southeast Canada, and others (e.g. C. coeruleus) extend as far south as Guatemala. Most are shrubs 0.5–3 m tall, but C. arboreus and C. thyrsiflorus, both from California, can be small trees up to 6–7 m tall. The name is derived from the Greek word κεανοθος (keanothos), which was applied by Theophrastus (371-287 BC) to a spiny Old World plant believed to be Cirsium arvense.

… Many species are popular garden ornamental plants, and dozens of hybrids and cultivars have been selected (link)

Ceanothus and Syringa do not have enormously similar flowers; compare Ceonothus in #6 with Syringa in #7:



But they are both ornamental flowering shrubs, and Ceonothus can fill much the same function in landscape gardening in Mediterranean or semi-tropical climates as Syringa, most species of which thrive only in places with decidedly chilly winters. (Botanically, they are not at all close: Ceonothus is in the family Rhamnaceae, the buckthorn family, while Syringa is in the Oleaceae, the olive family, and the families are distant.)

So far as I know, no one thinks that California lilacs are lilacs.

Lilies. On to Hemerocallis and Lilium. The flowers are visibly similar — Hemerocallis in #8 (pink daylilies in a container) and #9 (an assortment of hybrids), Lilium in #10 (the Madonna Lily) and #11 (the Stargazer hybrid) —





and can fill similar slots in the garden. On the plants:


Daylily is the general nonscientific name of a species, hybrid or cultivar of the genus Hemerocallis … Daylily cultivar flowers are highly diverse in colour and form, as a result of hybridization efforts of gardening enthusiasts and professional horticulturalists. Thousands of registered cultivars are appreciated and studied by local and international Hemerocallis societies. Hemerocallis is now placed in family Xanthorrhoeaceae, subfamily Hemerocallidoideae, and formerly was part of Liliaceae (which includes true lilies).

Daylilies are perennial plants. The name Hemerocallis comes from the Greek words ἡμέρα (hēmera) “day” and καλός (kalos) “beautiful”. This name alludes to the flowers which typically last no more than 24 hours. The flowers of most species open in early morning and wither during the following night, possibly replaced by another one on the same scape (flower stalk) the next day. Some species are night-blooming.

[Daylily plants grow from tuber-like roots rather than bulbs.] (link)


Lilium (members of which are true lilies) is a genus of herbaceous flowering plants growing from bulbs, all with large prominent flowers. Lilies are a group of flowering plants which are important in culture and literature in much of the world. Most species are native to the temperate northern hemisphere, though their range extends into the northern subtropics. Many other plants have “lily” in their common name but are not related to true lilies.

… The term “lily” has in the past been applied to numerous different flowering plants, often with only superficial resemblance to the true lily, including lotus, ranunculus, tulip, iris, anemone, agapanthus, zantedeschia, daylily, and others. (link)


So far so good. Most people (botanists included) don’t treat dayliles and (“true”) lilies together as constituting a category, but some do. My man Jacques did (and he’s not the only person I’ve come across who thought this way); he recognized that they were different plants, but treated them like opium poppies and California poppies, as two subtypes of a larger category, which he referred to with the word lily. And he really liked lilies, of both types.

One Response to “Poppies, lilacs, and lilies”

  1. peonies | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (6/20/13)I posted about lilac (Syringa) — for which the so-called (unrelated but physically somewhat similar) […]

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