Guest Post. Poppies: A blessing, a curse and a moment of reflection

Papaver dubium in Norfolk, UK. Photo by the author.

Papaver dubium in Norfolk, UK. Photo by the author.

A week early, the red poppy is the Organism of the Month of July here at Plant Scientist. I didn’t want to delay the publication of this post since there are loads of red poppies in flower in Europe at the moment!

By Kirsty Jackson (@kjjscience)

At this time of year poppies seem to spring out of anywhere and everywhere they can. In the last few weeks I have seen them in gardens, motorway central reservations and even poking out of Norwich’s medieval city wall.

Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). From Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885

Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). From Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885 (via Wikiemedia Commons).

Humans have used poppies in food, medicines and beauty treatments for around 6,000 years. The opium poppy (Papaver somniforum) was widely used by the Greeks, Romans and even thought to be used by Neolithic tribes. When looking upon the pretty flower of the opium poppy, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is harmless. In fact, the opium poppy has been both a blessing and curse for humanity.

During the ripening of the opium poppy seed capsule, the head produces a milky sap, which is the source of the drug opium. In the 18th Century, China suffered greatly due to the addictive properties of opium. Britain, in an attempt to gain trade from China, supplied the Chinese with opium (from Bengal), despite resistance from the Chinese government. The effects of opium began to destabilise China and enabled the British to prosper in Opium Wars of the mid-19th Century. It was at this time (~1842) that Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire and it was not returned to China until 1997.

Opium is also the source of well-known drugs such as morphine, heroin and codeine. These drugs all act as pain-relievers and cause drowsiness. Morphine is widely used in medicine to relieve intense pain. It was isolated by a German Pharmacist Fredrich Sertürner in 1804. However, due to the addictive properties of morphine the search continued for better pain relieving drugs.

Heroin was first derived from morphine in 1874 by C.R Alder Wright an English Chemist. The name heroin was based on reports from German medical trials where participants said it made them feel “heroish”. At first, heroin was marketed as a non-addictive alternative to morphine. Unfortunately, heroin is actually more potent than morphine because it can more rapidly pass from the blood into the brain. Although heroin was deemed as unsuitable for medical use, it persists as a “recreational” drug. Heroin addiction causes big health and social problems all over the world.

Polish Makoweic, a roll filled with poppy seed paste. Image by Bartosz Senderek (CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons).

Polish Makoweic, a roll filled with poppy seed paste. Image by Bartosz Senderek (CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons).

Aside from opium, the opium poppy P. somniforum, is also the source of the edible poppy seeds that are used in foods all over the World. Poppy seeds are considered highly nutritious and are added to bread dough, pasta, pastry and curries. Soaked ground poppy seeds can also be used as a natural skin moisturiser.

The most iconic member of the poppy family is the red poppy, Papaver rhoseas. The bright red petals stand out against green backdrop of fields and meadows across Europe. P. rhoseas is commonly mistaken by another red poppy Papaver dubium, but it can be distinguished by the smoothness of its seed capsules.

In Commonwealth countries, the red poppy has become a symbol of remembrance of armed personnel lost in the line of duty. The use of poppies for Remembrance Day was inspired by the war poem “In Flanders Fields” written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. The poem refers to the poppies that grew over the battle fields of the First World War (1914-1918). It is a quirk of the poppy life cycle that caused them to carpet the fields along the Somme. Poppy seeds require light to germinate and they can lie dormant below soil for many years until the soil is disturbed and the seeds brought to the surface. The prolific shelling from both sides churned up the soil so that fields, which had not had red poppies growing in them in living memory, were covered in a carpet of the red flowers.

“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 the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing 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.”

John McCrae, May 1915

Image released into public domain. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Image released into public domain. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

About the author: Kirsty Jackson is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre, Norwich. She studies bacterial and fungal symbioses with legumes and loves all things fungi! She also runs science outreach events. Follow her on twitter (@kjjscience)

Reference: Laws (2010) Fifty plants that changed the course of history. David and Charles.

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6 thoughts on “Guest Post. Poppies: A blessing, a curse and a moment of reflection

  1. Young poppy plants are also very edible, cooked as spinach…my grandmother picked them every spring, and called them “peverel” in her north-Italian Venetian dialect, as the leaves have a slight peppery taste.
    She was a keen forager for edible plants and mushrooms … I like to think I inherited some of this passion from her, via my dad.

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