Poppies: how a fertility symbol became a symbol of war

Food, drugs, symbols of war and fertility, poppies play many roles. Photo by Jenny Downing. Through the dancing poppies stole a breeze. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bx8qjf

Food, drugs, symbols of war and fertility, poppies play many roles. Photo by Jenny Downing. Through the dancing poppies stole a breeze. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bx8qjf

Last Tuesday was Remembrance Day in Canada, and red felt poppies were everywhere. In Canada, as in many other countries, poppies symbolize those who lost their lives in war.

However, poppies also bring to mind a deadly field in the Wizard of Oz, opium dens and heroin addicts. Where did the poppy, which is arguably just as attractive as a rose, get such a dark reputation?

A one-plant drug factory

Heroin was once a common ingredient in patent medicines. Photo by Karen Neoh. Heroin Bottles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/i4EFNG

Heroin was once a common ingredient in patent medicines. Photo by Karen Neoh. Heroin Bottles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/i4EFNG

Okay, I know everyone wants to know about opium and heroin, so let’s get this out of the way.

Opium and heroin are opiates, drugs that occur naturally in the opium poppy’s sap. Other opiates include the painkiller morphine and the cough-suppressant codeine. Some opiates, like heroin, are more powerful than others.

Out of the 50-plus species of poppies, you can only get opiates from one. The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, was originally from Turkey. Today it’s grown legally in Australia, India and Turkey to make pharmaceuticals, and illegally in Laos, Thailand and Afghanistan and the United States to make heroin.

Opiates act on the brain and spinal cord to reduce pain and relax muscles. Opiates trick the brain into thinking they are endorphins, the brain’s feel-good chemical. Unfortunately, this also makes them very addictive.

For centuries opium was medicine’s main painkiller. It was taken as pills or added to drinks. Because of its medicinal properties the opium poppy spread from Turkey to Greece, China and India.

In Europe opium was a common ingredient in patent medicines. Morphine was used to treat American soldiers during the Civil war, creating thousands of addicts.

When heroin was discovered in the 1900s, governments quickly made most opiates illegal. After that, the strongest opiates moved underground. Today many opium poppies are grown illegally to feed the habit of millions of heroin addicts.

It’s not all bad. Some people grow the opium poppy for its seeds, used to make oil and birdseed.

A big money-maker

An opium poppy in full bloom. The seed pod sap is where the drugs come from. Photo by Tristan Martin. Opium Poppy. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9XU5WX

An opium poppy in full bloom. The seed pod sap is where the drugs come from. Photo by Tristan Martin. Opium Poppy. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9XU5WX

Today the not-so-strong opiate codeine is one of the world’s most common painkillers. Canadians are some of the drug’s top consumers, spending over $100 million a year on codeine products. All of Canada’s codeine is imported, and some scientists are trying to find ways to make it artificially to avoid import costs.

Origin story

Field of poppies in California. Photo by Rennett Stowe. California Poppies. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4Axv1J

Field of poppies in California. Photo by Rennett Stowe. California Poppies. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4Axv1J

Poppies belong to the Papaveraceae family. Papaver is Latin for food or milk, which refers to the poppy’s milky sap.

Poppies grow all over the place, including the Middle East, China, Europe, Central Asia and North America. Some even grow in the arctic like the strangely named Iceland Poppy actually from North America. The four-petaled Common poppy of Remembrance Day fame is native to North Africa and Southern Europe, but it’s done a good job of spreading itself all over Europe and Asia.

Fabulous Fertility

Poppies have lots of seeds and often grow in farmer's fields. Photo by Bob Shrader. Corn Poppy Red. CC. https://flic.kr/p/jBcoyq

Poppies have lots of seeds and often grow in farmer’s fields. Photo by Bob Shrader. Corn Poppy Red. CC. https://flic.kr/p/jBcoyq

Imagine a poppy seed. You know, one of the black specks in your lemon-poppy-seed muffin. Now imagine 60,000 of them. That’s how many seeds a single plant can make in a single year. This is one reason the Common poppy is a fertility symbol in Europe.

Poppy seeds are patient. They can wait up to 80 years for just the right conditions: churned up and disturbed soil. Poppies love to pop up in newly-tilled fields, so farmers associated them with the fertility of their crops.

Unfortunately, this super-fertile plant started to decline once farmers started using chemical herbicides on their fields. However, poppies still bloom on land farmers set aside, attracting bees and butterflies to pollinate the fields.

Lest we forget

Poppies strewn on a war memorial on Remembrance Day in Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Amelia Buchanan.CC.

Poppies strewn on a war memorial on Remembrance Day in Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Amelia Buchanan.CC.


War also does a good job of churning up fields and creating perfect poppy conditions. Poppies bloomed on many fields after the First World War, inspiring Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”. His poem sparked the widespread association between the flowers and those that died in war. Today poppies are a symbol of wartime remembrance in many countries, and artificial poppies are sold in support of veterans.

Tiny edibles

Tiny poppy seeds play a big role in many sweets. Photo by rusvaplauke. Poppy Seed Triangles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2u5UDW

Tiny poppy seeds play a big role in many sweets. Photo by rusvaplauke. Poppy Seed Triangles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2u5UDW


What would lemon muffins be without poppy seeds? Poppy seeds are a spice used to flavour cakes and breads. In France they also use the oil of the seed. The bright petals are also used to dye some medicines and wines red, and the young leaves can be eaten like spinach.

Poppies are cultural reminders of war, fertility symbols, spices, illegal drugs and painkillers. Humans owe a lot to this bright red flower.

References

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/470181/poppy
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/430129/opium/283761/History-of-opium
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/430129/opium
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/in-flanders-fields/
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/papaver-rhoeas-common-poppy
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/627065/Veterans-Day#ref1089588
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/in-flanders-fields/
http://ucalgary.ca/news/march2010/poppygenes
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/papaver-orientale-oriental-poppy

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About Amelia

I am a recent biology graduate and current journalism student exploring career opportunities in science communications.

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