They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers he sleeps on and on forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep.
–L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz, illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger
Although L. Frank Baum stated his intention to create a twentieth-century American fairy tale “solely to please children,” some people believe that The Wizard of Oz is a political allegory written at a time when the Populist movement was active in the United States. In the alleged allegory, “Oz” stands for “ounce” (a reference to the gold standard), Dorothy is the essential American, the Scarecrow stands for farmers (and their troubles) and the Tin Woodman stands for workers (or alternatively, for the steel industry). The field of poppies represents a warning about things, ideas or states of being that appear to be attractive or enticing but may be quite dangerous. The sleepiness brought about by the poppies may represent a state of apathy or complacency.
The connection between sleepiness and poppies is due to the narcotic properties of Papaver somniferum, the Opium poppy. The Latin botanical name means “sleep-bringing poppy” and this association goes back to ancient times. In classical mythology, the goddess Ceres (Demeter) was grief-stricken after her daughter Proserpina (Persephone) was abducted by Pluto (Hades), the ruler of the underworld. To assuage her grief, Jupiter (Zeus) gave Ceres some poppy seed to eat so that she might sleep and forget her troubles.
The narcotic properties of the poppy have caused many governments to impose controls on growing poppies or possessing poppy seeds. This association is unfortunate for people who enjoy the many types of delicious baked goods that can be made with poppy seeds. Years ago, my husband and I went on a quest to find the best poppy seed cake available in Germany. We stopped at every village to purchase a sample from the local bakery. It was amazing how varied these cakes were; really, no two pieces were ever exactly the same. They were all delicious and it was impossible to declare a winner. I do not recommend this quest to anyone who wishes to remain slim and energetic. Come to think of it, by the end of our trip we found ourselves in a state of apathy and complacency.
In Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers, three meanings are given for poppy, according to colour:
- Poppy, Red: Consolation.
- Poppy, Scarlet: Fantastic extravagance.
- Poppy, White: Sleep, My bane, My antidote.
While poppies are linked with sleep and forgetfulness, the poppy is also a symbol of remembrance. Following the trench warfare of the 1st World War which took place in the poppy fields of Flanders, red poppies have become a symbol of remembrance of soldiers who have died during wartime. The Flanders poppy is Papaver rhoeas, also called Corn poppy.
Poppies belong to genera of Papaveraceae, which includes:
- Papaver – corn poppy, Opium poppy, Oriental poppy, Iceland poppy, and about 120 other species
- Eschscholzia – California poppy and relatives
- Meconopsis – Welsh poppy, Nepal poppy, and relatives
- Stylophorum – Celandine poppy or wood poppy
- Argemone – Prickly poppy
- Romneya – Matilija poppy and relatives
- Canbya – Pygmy poppy
- Stylomecon – Wind poppy
- Arctomecon – desert bearpaw poppy
- Hunnemannia – Tulip poppy
- Dendromecon – Tree poppy
You might wonder why I’m thinking about poppies in February. In a small pot that came with me in the move, I’ve just discovered new growth–Oriental Poppies, still quite small but very promising! If memory serves me right, there are at least two varieties here, most likely the standard intense orange and a more delicate salmon colour. Something to look forward to in May or June.