In honour of the 100 years since Armistice Day, this week we are taking a look at the history of the poppy, which is well-known for its significance as a flower of remembrance. Poppies also have an extensive history across cultures as a symbolic, medicinal, and culinary plant, and have played an important role in the economies of many countries for thousands of years.

Originating from south-east Europe and Asia, poppies are now grown all over the world for their ornamental flowers and as a source of opium for the pharmaceutical industry, but did you know that only a few of the many varieties of poppy actually produce opium?

Faiths and Cultures:

Poppies have been a symbolic plant across civilisations since the Bronze Age, and have come to symbolise joy, immortality, fertility, death, peace, and remembrance. Poppy seeds have been found in many archaeological sites, with the oldest found in a Neolithic village in Switzerland dating back to the 6th millennium BC! In Crete, poppies were a sacred plant for the Minoans, a Bronze Age civilisation, and was symbolic of mortality.

In 18th century Poland, poppy juice was used to dye thread and seeds were eaten as part of symbolic feasts held with the dead, such as on All Saints’ Day and Christmas Eve. Poppies were symbolic of fertility, and were eaten at these feasts to guarantee abundant crops for the following years. Poppy seeds were also thought to protect against evil and were sprinkled around barn doorways and in the corners of houses on Christmas Eve. This was to protect against witches, who were believed to be especially active on Christmas Eve, as they then would have to count all of the seeds, which would force them to abandon their evil plans.

One species of poppy, Papaver rhoeaes or the Field Poppy, is a common weed in Europe that has become symbolic of Remembrance because it was one of the few plants that grew on the battlefields in France and Belgium during WW1. The flowers have been worn every year to commemorate Armistice Day across allied nations since 1919, and cloth poppies are also worn on ANZAC day in Australia. In soldiers’ folklore, the naturally red colour of these poppies was believed to have come from the blood of soldiers’ fallen comrades that was soaked up from the ground.

Poppies may have been a symbol for death and sleep due to their sedative effects and red, blood-like colour. Their sedative effect is used as a plot point in 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and subsequent film, where Dorothy and her companions had to escape the field of poppies that were cursed to cause eternal sleep.

Medicinal Uses:

Medicinally, poppies are known for their effects as a sedative and have been used since the 15th century BC! According to the Ebers papyrus, poppies were used in an opium-based medicine that was used by Isis to soothe Horus, and this was recommended for calming children who cried too much. Ancient Egyptians also used to eat poppy seeds to relieve pain and Ancient Greeks used poppies in ointments to treat eye conditions and dropsy. According to Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist of the Roman Empire, a mixture of ground poppy leaves and olives was used to remove leucomas (opaque parts in the cornea of the eye) in animals.

Poppies were also an important medicinal plant in Polish medicine and have been used to treat a range of different conditions since their appearance in Poland’s first book on plants in 1532. Crushed leaves were used to treat sore throats and reduce swelling, and petals were even smoked to treat toothaches! However, poppies were used with caution as they were believed to cause drowsiness and ruin memory. Later in 19th century England, a coloured syrup was made from the petals of field poppies and had mild narcotic properties that were used to help children sleep.

Nowadays, commercially-grown opium poppies are heavily regulated and are used to produce morphine, codeine and thebaine, an extract used in prescription drugs including OxyContin and opravine, which is an extract used to treat heroin overdoses. In Australia, Tasmania is the source of commercially-cultivated poppies and produced a quarter of the world’s supply of morphine and codeine in 2014. However, growing opium poppies privately is illegal in the United States and some parts of Australia, with Turkish farmers being banned from growing poppies during Nixon’s “war on drugs” in the 1970s.

Opium and other opiates are extracted from the gum in unripe seeds, but these contain such small amounts of these compounds that acres of poppies are required to obtain a usable amount. Not only that, but poppy seeds slowly lose their opium content as they ripen, but while ripened seeds used in cooking contain even smaller amounts of opium, consumption of seeds can cause positive results in blood and urine tests for codeine and morphine for up to 48 hours!

Culinary Uses:

Poppies have also been used in cooking around the world, with poppy seeds and oil primarily being used. In fact, poppy seeds can be either blue-grey or white in colour, and different cultures use one over the other. In European cooking, blue-grey seeds are predominantly used and are sprinkled over cakes, bread, and bagels, and are used to make confectionary in Poland. White poppy seeds are primarily used in Indian cooking as a spice or thickener in curries. Poppy seeds are also a good source of thiamin, folate, calcium, iron, and zinc.

Poppy oil, made from crushing poppy seeds, is used as a cooking oil, an oil for salad dressings, and is even found in some margarines. In 19th century England, poppy oil was used by painters and to adulterate olive oil.

If you are interested in cooking with poppy seeds, have a look through these great recipes:

BBC Food, Lemon poppy seed cake

BBC Food, South Indian chicken curry

All Recipes, Poppy seed dressing

Gardening Facts:

With flowers that come in almost every colour from purple through to white, poppies are incredibly popular ornamental plants found in gardens across the world. Poppies can be planted from as early as autumn in temperate areas, in early autumn to winter in warmer areas, or in summer in cooler climates. They prefer spots that have maximal exposure to sun, protection from strong winds, and with loose, well-drained soil.

Poppies are also a great addition for attracting bees to your garden which can help improve the quality and yield of nearby fruit and veggies. Some species of poppy, such as the Iceland poppy, also attract beneficial predators such as hoverflies, which can be helpful in controlling aphid populations.

Happy gardening, cooking and eating!

Main image courtesy of Landscape Heritage Consultant Charlotte Webb