Most people know of the poppy's connection with Armistice Day (often called Poppy Day). This association grew from the WW1 battlefields in France, where the fighting churned up the soil and brought thousands of dormant poppy seeds to the surface and decorated the land where so many had died in swathes of the gorgeous red flowers. The colourful scene which marked the fields where so much horror had suffering and death had occurred is, perhaps, best remembered in the following poem, written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae:
In Flander's Fields
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.
We are Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up your quarrel with the foe;
To you from falling hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields
Poppies, however, were known to flourish on battlefields long before WW1. It was said after the battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815) that the masses of poppies which suddenly flowered there had grown from the dead soldier's spilled blood.
The flower's connection with death has been known for countless centuries. The twin Greek deities Hypnos and Thanatos, were illustrated wearing crowns of poppies and the flowers were considered suitable offerings for the dead in both ancient Greece and Rome.
In other parts of the world, poppies have happier associations :o) In China, it is believed to be lucky to smell the scent of the flower three times a day and in Turkey, they symbolise the promise of health and peace.
Magical properties have also been attributed to the flower. In 'A Mid Summer's Night Dream', Shakespeare writes " The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid will make a man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees". Peering into the black centre was a traditional folk remedy for insomnia.
Whilst opium is derived from only one of the hundreds of different varieties of poppy, many poppies have sedative effects on those who consume them and poppies are sometimes inscribed on gravestones to symbolise eternal rest. In the popular film, The Wizard of Oz, a poppy field was depicted as dangerous as it caused all those who passed through it to fall asleep forever. Such are the properties of this plant that foods rich in culinary poppy seeds can even result in the failing of an opiate drug test and the sale of poppy seeds is banned in several countries.