It’s that time of year when we see the countryside dotted with splashes of bright red thanks to the abundance of that most emotive of flowers, the poppy.
I haven’t yet come across someone who doesn’t like the flower, except perhaps cereal farmers who have to deal with it when it contaminates their crops. It can become a veritable nuisance, thanks to its ability to easily propagate itself, and the fact that seeds can lie dormant below ground for up to 100 years. There may be no visible sign of the cheerful weed, but once the ground is disturbed, for example through cultivation, the liberated pods celebrate by springing gleefully back to life, bursting into bloom, all the while generously throwing even more seeds across the soil to the consternation of the frustrated farmer.
The rest of us, though, like many an impressionist artist before us, prefer to ignore this irritating characteristic of what is undoubtedly a most beautiful flower. As my dad says in his column from 26th June 1982, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the presence of poppies in a corn field was a good sign, a sign that the goddess of the harvest had blessed the crop. Demeter was the Greek version of this goddess, and Ceres the Roman name. Hypnos, god of sleep, was known as Somnus by the Romans. The ancient myth was that Hypnos was very worried that Demeter was exhausting herself by working so hard during harvesting season. She wasn’t getting any sleep, and was so tired that her health, and thus the health of the harvest, had begun to suffer.
Hypnos decided that the only way to save the crops was to get Demeter to rest, and so he fed her the sap of the poppy which induced a powerful and deep sleep. Once she was fully rested, Demeter awoke full of vigour and vitality, and set to work again, and so the harvest was saved. It is because of this story that depictions of Demeter often show her with a garland of poppies around her neck or on her head.
The connection to wartime remembrance is thanks mainly to the 1915 poem In Flanders Fields written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who, during World War I, had witnessed the deaths of many of his friends. He was struck by the symbolism of the blood-red blooms rising from the ground where his comrades had fallen. Ever since, the sight of a poppy brings to mind those who gave their lives on the front line.
It is likely that the association with sleep and drowsiness is in no small part thanks to the fact that certain species of poppy are known to possess narcotic qualities, and if you slice a pod, a white liquid oozes out, then solidifies once it makes contact with the air. This is natural latex, but not to be confused with latex rubber which is used for things like gloves and condoms. The Romans were known to give this juice to their infants to encourage them to sleep and called it Papaver, from which the modern word poppy derives.
It is commonly believed the Sumerians, the earliest known civilisation in Mesopotamia (now part of modern-day Iraq), were the first to cultivate opium poppies in around 3,000BC, but there is some evidence that a very early version of the plant was farmed by Neolithic man in Europe several thousand years earlier. In fact, a poppy seed was found embedded in the skull of an elderly Neolithic man from a burial site near Barcelona.
However, it was the Greek Minoans that are first known to have traded in poppy seeds in around 1,400 BC, and the prized pod can be seen depicted in sculpture, paintings and pottery. The versatile seeds were a valuable currency, used for many things such as food, pain relief, antiseptic, coughs, diarrhoea and, not surprisingly, as a cure for insomnia.
The opium poppy is still a vital ingredient in modern medicine today, although only a few countries are licensed to grow it, with Tasmania providing half of the world’s supply. Morphine and codeine are derived from the milky latex extracted from the unripe seed pods while the illegal drug heroin is also a derivative. Being four to eight times more potent than morphine it is, of course, highly addictive.
Thankfully, my only addiction to poppies involves staring wistfully at them on my country walks.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 24th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 22nd June 2022