The Poppy – remembrance and symbolism of things past

As humans, we’ve been creating symbolism with flowers and plants since time immemorial.

Flowers can convey messages that we can’t always speak. They represent every sentiment one could think of, and as a floral designer, I’ve always been fascinated by this partnership between humans and the language of flowers.

With Remembrance Day upon us, I began to consider our link to the Poppy.

It ended up that I dug quite a bit further back in history than World War I & II.

I discovered an enormous amount of interesting information about the evolution of the poppy, and how it’s played a part in tandem with humanity over the centuries.

Probably the best known Poppy is the Papaver somniferum, which is the opium Poppy. It was domesticated by indigenous people from Western and Central Europe between 6000 and 3500 BC.  It’s believed that the use of opium may have originated with the ancient Sumerian people.

Papaver somniferum L. is one of the oldest cultivated plants with the hypothesis that this particular poppy is derived from the species Papaver setigerum, which grows wild along the Mediterranean region.

Western Asia is also considered the center of poppy’s origin. The oldest documented traces of poppies in Europe come from the Neolithic period, as evidenced by poppy seeds found in the Alps.

The ancient Egyptians of the eighteenth dynasty created containers made in the shape of poppies. These Juglets as they’re called, have been found with trace amounts of opium still inside.  The flower also appears on jewelry and other art objects from that era, and opium seemed to offer a ritual significance as its use was generally restricted to priests.

Poppies and opium then made their way around the known world via the Silk Road. In Turkey, the poppy has been a traditional plant since 3,000 BC, and the city Afyon in central Anatolia (Turkey) was named after them. “Afyon” in Turkish means “opium.”

The Wizard of Oz – Chapter 8

According to L. Frank Baum, (who we all know as the author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz), Poppies were mentioned in Greco-Roman myths as offerings to the dead.

The origin of the Poppy (Papaver) was attributed by the ancient Greeks to Ceres, who, despairing of regaining her daughter Proserpine, carried off by Pluto, created the Poppy in order that by ingesting it she might obtain sleep, and thus forget her grief.

The ancients considered the Papaver Rhæa, or Corn-Rose, so necessary for the prosperity of their Corn, that the seeds of this Poppy were offered up in the sacred rites of Ceres, (aka Demeter) whose garland was formed with Barley or bearded Wheat interwoven with Poppies.

Demeter rejoiced, for her daughter was by her side. Illustration by Walter Crane – (1914) – Public Domain

Ceres/Demeter is sometimes depicted holding Poppies in her hand. The quieting effects of the Poppy, which were well known to the Greeks, probably led them to represent the deities Hypnos (Sleep), Thanatos (Death), and Nyx (Night), either as crowned with Poppies, or holding Poppies in their hands.

A Minoan goddess represented as a terracotta figurine was discovered by archaeologists. With raised hands and seeds of opium poppies on her head, this female figure, known popularly as the poppy goddess, is thought to be a representation as the bringer of sleep or death.

Greek youths and maidens proved sincerity to their lovers by placing a petal or flower-leaf of the Poppy in one hand, which, on being struck with the other hand, was broken with a sharp sound, which denoted true attachment. If it failed to snap, that meant unfaithfulness. This superstition passed to Rome, and is still practiced in modern Italy and Switzerland.

Currently, many poppy seeds come to market from the European Union, and plantations are also located in China and Australia. In Slavic countries, the poppy seed is a traditional culinary delicacy.

In any case, there seems to be a relationship between Poppies and conflict.

The field poppy, Papaver rhoeas, on which the remembrance poppy is based, has long been associated with armies fighting in Europe.

The flowers often overgrew the mass graves left by battles, and this has been documented, at least back to a 1693 battle in the Netherlands between the French and English, as well as the battle of Waterloo, and of course WWI, where the enormous artillery bombardments completely disrupted the landscape. This destruction infused chalk soils with lime, and the Poppy thrives in that environment where their vivid colour can’t be missed in contrast to the surrounding disfigured terrain.

In closing, the themes for the poppy across the centuries, are for the most part nods to the underworld, sleep, funeral rites, and death, which seems like an appropriate symbol for all of the people who’ve died fighting wars.



Grow note

Poppy seeds like the cool of early spring or autumn to be planted.
They don’t like to be transplanted due to their rather long taproot. If you must move a Poppy, make sure to get as much soil around them as possible. Otherwise, it dries out in no time and you’re left with a dead plant. I say this from personal experience. : (
They sure are showy once they’re established. A real treasure in the garden!

Field of red poppies – S. Shelton, Postcard, ca 1903 Public Domain

 

Thoughts of Spring and Crocus flowers lead me to the garden

n the first day of Spring my thoughts always lead me to the garden.

One of the first flowers to greet me after a long winter is the lovely Crocus.

With petal colours varying from white, purple, yellow, and even striped, this small perennial bulb, (corm), planted in autumn for its spring show, originates from the Alps, and offers abundant blossoms that brighten up the beds, often while other parts of the my garden are still heavily laden with snow.

Ancient legend relates Crocus as an unfortunate lover. The myth centres around his unfulfilled and tragic love for Smilax, a woodland nymph, also transformed but in her case, as a brambly vine. His sorrow it is said, awakened sympathy from the gods who aided his metamorphosis into what we now know as this dainty spring flower.

According to old lists containing flower meanings, the Crocus flower is equated to both ‘Spring’ and ‘cheerfulness’. And why not after a long, dreary winter?! Both meanings seem quite appropriate!

Out from the heart of the Crocus,
There leaped to my heart a song,
It was as though an angel
Had borne the word along,
And its message drew and held me,
Until my soul was strong.

~ E.M. Hill

Saffron, the stigma from Crocus sativus is a very expensive spice. Along with being a food additive, it scents perfumes, cosmetics, and is a component of traditional medicines. Studies show it works as an anti-carcinogentic, boosts the immune system, and is an antioxidant.

Shown on frescoes dating from 1700 B.C., it’s no wonder this flower has been cultivated and harvested since ancient times in the Middle East, North Africa, India, and throughout the Mediterranean region.

In any case, with three feet of snow still to melt in my neck of the woods, I’ll think of this flower, and others, biding my time until I get to enjoy their presence once again.

Happy Spring!


 

Four-leaf clovers – More than a lucky Irish symbol

You don’t have to be Irish to know a four-leaf clover is a universal symbol of good luck. This accepted belief is as old as the hills.

A description from 1869 states “four-leaf clovers were gathered at night-time during the full moon by sorceresses, who mixed it with other ingredients, while young girls in search of a token of perfect happiness made quest of the plant by day”

Druids held four-leaf clovers in high esteem. They too considered them a sign of good luck.  As much as I love to read about, and devour any information on these mystical figures, I do take some of it with a grain of salt.

The sad reality is, we just don’t know much about Druids. Except for information written by the likes of Julius Caesar, Tacitus, and Strabo, who as Roman conquerors, and Druids being their enemy, any account from them is likely to be biased.

There are however, many Irish myths and legends pertaining to Druids which may hold historic value and even factual events. But I digress…

Irish folklore tells us finding a clover with four leaves will bring you good luck, however finding a stem with five leaves or more will not bring you more luck.

I’d have to disagree with that. The odds would have to be pretty high for someone to find one, so I’d consider it even more fortunate, indeed!

Each of the four leaves has its own representation, though this varies depending on who you speak with about it. Generally, the most popular meanings are:

  • Faith
  • Hope
  • Love
  • Luck

By the same token, a clover with three leaves has symbolism, too. According to Pliny, it’s connected to the Holy Trinity. In addition, clover was used to make a salve against snake bites, since snakes represented Original Sin, and encouraged by that dastardly serpent in the Garden of Eden. Here, each leaf represents a good deed. In this case:

  • Faith
  • Hope
  • Charity

The most widely cultivated clovers are white clover, Trifolium repens, and red clover, Trifolium pratense.

Clover shoots up easily, even after repeated mowing. It produces nutritious crop for livestock and fixes nitrogen in the soil, which reduces the need for synthetic fertilizer. It grows in all kinds of climates, and it’s a great addition to your compost bin.

Last but not least, it’s one of the earliest plants to produce flowers, making it an important source of nectar for our pollinators, especially bees.

Of interest to floral historians, the Four-Leaf Clover in floral language means – ‘Be Mine’.

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to find a four-leaf clover. I pressed it between the pages of a book, and since then its sat, on one of the bookshelves in my house. Now that I’m writing this post, I’ll have to search for it.

I figure it doesn’t matter if you find the same one twice! When it turns up, it will still be a lucky find.

Top o’ the mornin’ to ya. Make sure to wear something green!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

 

 


Sources:

  • Rutherford, Ward (1978). The Druids and their Heritage. London: Gordon & Cremonesi.
  • Celtic Studies Resources: Did the Celts or Druids Perform Human Sacrifice?
  • Pliny the Elder. Naturalis Historia. c.78 CE.
  • Tacitus. Annales. Second century CE.
  • Masters MT. 1869. Vegetable Teratology, An Account of the Principal Deviations from the Usual Construction of Plants. Robert Hardwicke Publisher, London, P 356.
  • Mark Kinver, Science and environment reporter, BBC News – Science/Environment – Bumbles make beeline for gardens, study suggests
  • The bouquet – A Poetic Treasury of Flowers, Their Classics and Vocabulary, (pg. 13) by Walser, G. H. (George Henry), 1834-1910
  • Cyclopedia of practical floriculture by Turner, Cordelia Harris – Publication date 1884
  • The images are royalty-free. Use and share as you like.