The Memorial Day Poppy

The inspiration for this column began at the local shopping mall. Yeah, I know it is a pretty bizarre place to get any kind of inspiration let alone gardening inspiration but sometimes you just have to go with the flow. You see sitting out front of one of the mega stores was a WWII veteran and what looked like his grandson. On the shaky card table were a bunch of red silk poppies and a can for donations.

I always put some money in the can and get a poppy to wear. It’s a habit I picked up from my Dad when I was a little kid. He always bought a poppy and kept it in the visor of his truck. I didn’t know why he did this exactly except that it had something to do with the war. He was a veteran of WWII and since he is no longer around to buy his poppy I do it for him.

That old vet sitting at his table a few weeks before Memorial Day got me wondering about the story of the red poppy. There are many kinds of poppies but the poppy mentioned in John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”, was found growing in the fields of Flanders and often referred to as Flanders Poppy is actually Papaver rhoeas more commonly called Corn Poppy. This Mediterranean native is found growing in cultivated fields all over southern Europe.

Its legend reaches back thousands of years. They have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back 3,000 years. There is a drawing of a poppy that was found in the Codex Vindobonensis which was put together for the Byzantine princess Anicia Juliana. The Codex is dated at over a thousand years. Homer mentions poppies in the Iliad, comparing the head of a dying warrior to that of a hanging poppy flower. Many of the ancient Greek and Roman gods are associated with the poppy. The god Morpheus made crowns out of the poppy flowers and gave them to those he wanted to put to sleep. Poppy flowers were used to decorate his temple.

Like all legends there is some fact mixed in with the fiction. Papaver rhoeas does not contain any opium. Its cousin Papaver somniferum is the opium poppy and is native to parts of Asia. I repeat, for all you poppy pod swipers, the Corn Poppy does not contain any opium, so leave the pretty flowers alone so other people can enjoy them. Now that that is cleared up I’ll tell you what the Corn Poppy does contain and why Morpheus used it to put people to sleep.

Papaver rhoeas contains a substance, cleverly named rhoeadine. It’s nonpoisonous and has been used as a mild sedative for centuries. The ancient Romans used a concoction of the poppy to ease the pains of love, I guess if you are sleeping you can’t worry about love.

The Greeks have a legend that explains how the poppy came to be called the Corn Poppy. The poppy was created by the God of Sleep, Somnus. You see Ceres, the Goddess of Grain, was having a hard time falling asleep. She was exhausted from searching for her lost daughter; still she couldn’t fall asleep and had no energy to help the corn grow. Somnus cooked up a concoction and got her to take it, soon she was sleeping like a baby. Rested and relaxed Ceres could then turn her attention to the corn that began to grow. Ever since that time the people believed that poppies growing around cornfields ensure a bountiful harvest. And so was born the Corn Rose, or as we call it today the Corn Poppy.

Those are some of the ancient legends associated with the poppy. Now you are asking if I am ever going to explain the war connection. This too is an ancient connection going back to Ghengis Khan. It is said that after his annihilation of the enemy the fields were churned up and drenched in blood. Soon they were covered in pure white blooms of the poppy. During the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century the same phenomenon occurred. Churned up blood-drenched fields erupted in poppy flowers.

So buy a poppy, then grow some poppies. They are easy to grow and will self-sow so that each year you will have gorgeous poppies in your garden, or where ever the wind has blown the seed.

Corn Poppy grow about 2 feet tall, although I have seen them get even taller. The flowers are from 2 to 5 inches across and come in a variety of colors. Starting from seed is so easy, all you have to do is scatter the tiny seeds onto some prepared soil and forget them. You can do this in the fall or early spring. Fall scattered seeds tend to grow healthier and produce larger flowers than spring sown seed but either way you can’t go wrong. They like cooler weather, would prefer to be in full sun and they like well drained soil. They look great in mass plantings or as part of a wildflower meadow and bloom profusely. Poppies make great cut flowers. If you sear the cut end of the stem with a match they will last longer in the vase.

Written by: Rita Jacinto
Publishers Note: This article is reprinted with permission. Portions have been edited in the interest of space. To read Ms. Jacinto’s complete feature and for more information about growing poppies and other botanicals log on to botanical.com

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