There is a field I drive past which at the moment is as pretty as a Monet painting as it is full of red poppies. There is something decidedly uplifting about seeing such a view, even though poppies might not always be welcomed by farmers trying to grow a cereal crop.
According to my dad’s column from 14th July 1979, poppy seeds can lie dormant for some time, only to sprout into life once the ground is disturbed. Indeed, he recounts meeting a farmer leaning on a fence while gazing at a corn field that was bright red with poppies.
“Yon seeds lie doon there for hundreds o’ years, and when you disturb ‘em, you git acres o’ poppies and precious little corn,” said the farmer. He explained that it used to be a hay field, and that he had had no problem with poppies then. It was only after he’d ploughed it up and replanted it with corn that the flowers appeared.
My dad asked him how he’d get rid of them, as they were well interspersed with the crop. Would the harvest be ruined?
“Noo, Ah can’t get rid on ‘em, leastways Ah mebbe could by howin’ ‘em all oot, but there’s nut time for that these days. Besides, me combine fettles ‘em.”
The resilience of this little flower was demonstrated during World War I when Western Europe was decimated by bombardments and few plants were able to thrive. One notable exception was the red poppy and it inspired Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae to write his now famous and moving poem, In Flanders Fields, in 1915. The colonel had witnessed many deaths, and had just lost a close friend, when he was struck by the symbolism of the blood-red blooms rising from the ground where his comrades had fallen. His words are so poignant:
In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Poppies can thrive where others fail because the slow-growing flowers can withstand the cold of winter and have a clever method of germinating. The seed pod sits atop a long swaying stem, and when the seeds are ripe, they are cast from their pod by the wind to be scattered far and wide. They can then lie on the ground for months until a helpful plough or combine harvester comes along and jolts them into life.
When agriculture was a mostly manual occupation, farm workers would remove poppy plants through patient hoeing. But today machinery does the job, although if the seeds do end up back in the earth, they will germinate in ever-increasing numbers.
The connection between poppies and corn fields dates back to at least Greek times, and in Roman mythology Somnus, the god of sleep, used the flower to make Ceres, the corn goddess, fall asleep. Demeter is her Greek equivalent and Ceres and Demeter are often depicted wearing garlands of poppies and corn intertwined.
In Ancient Greek myth, Hades, King of the Underworld, kidnapped Demeter’s beautiful daughter Persephone. Demeter was distraught and scoured the earth looking for her, neglecting her duties protecting the crops. Zeus, King of all the Gods, knew he had to do something as the crops began to wither, but he didn’t want to risk the wrath of his tempestuous brother Hades. He therefore came up with the plan that Persephone would spend six months of the year with her mother on earth, and six months with Hades in the underworld. Demeter was so sad each year when Persephone was away that all the plants died back until she came back home again. And so this is how the ancient Greeks came to explain the cycle of the seasons.
Of course the common poppy, which is also known as the corn poppy, the corn rose, the field poppy and the Flanders poppy, has a rather infamous cousin in the opium poppy. It is the most widely cultivated of the species and is a source of natural opiates which are used both in the drugs trade, and in medicine. The addictive and strong painkiller morphine derives from it, and once again we can thank the ancient Greeks for its name, coming as it does from Morpheus, god of dreams.
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