Red Poppy

(Papaver rhoeas) It almost always accompanies cereal crops, and often disappears when cultivation is given up. The Greeks always reckoned it to be a companion to the corn, not a weed (Grigson. 1955), the flower of Aphrodite as goddess of vegetation, just as the Romans looked on it as sacred to their corn goddess, Ceres. Perhaps, as Grigson suggested, red poppies were regarded as a life blood growing along with the nourishing grain. Certainly, there was no difficulty in accepting poppies as a natural consequence after a battle, whether it was after Waterloo, or the battles of a later war. The Flanders poppy has become the symbol of the blood shed there.

Perhaps that is why there is something uncanny about poppies. Irish women had a dread of touching them (Grigson. 1955), and they are certainly unlucky flowers to bring indoors, for they can cause illness (Waring). Across northern Europe, and in Belgium, it was said that picking them would bring a thunderstorm (Sebillot); so they said in Wiltshire, too, but if you had poppies growing on the roof of a building, they protected against lightning (Wiltshire). There is no great difficulty here - a flower as red as a poppy would naturally be taken as a lightning plant.

Another superstition recorded around Liège shows a way of ensuring that children did not pick the flowers. If they did, they would wet the bed. This was still current at the beginning of the 20th century, and was recorded as early as the 16th (Sebillot). Around Dinan, they say that God punished the poppy for being too proud of its form by allowing the devil to touch it; the black patches are the marks of the devil's hand. Hence the Warwickshire proscription - children touching them would get warts on their hands (Savage). If corn poppies were put to the eyes they would cause blindness, hence such names as Blind Eyes, Blind Man, or Blindy-buff. Another group of names like Headache, or Headwork, show that they were used to cure headache, and from Norfolk, a hangover, but the underlying folklore shows that they were believed to cause it. As John Clare said:

Corn poppys that in crimson dwell

Call'd 'head ache' from their sickly smell.

In Wiltshire, they said that if you picked poppies from the corn, you would either have a bad headache or there would be thunder and lightning (Wiltshire) (cf names like Thunderflower, (Dartnell & Goddard), Thunderbolt, etc.,). Ear-ache is another of these names; if picked and put to the ear, ear-ache would be the result, but in Somerset a poultice made of poppies laid against the ear was used to cure the condition (Tongue. 1965).

One rather odd divination practice has been recorded from Switzerland. A poppy petal used to be put in the palm of the hand, and smartly slapped. If it burst, making a noise, then all was well - he was sincere, but if there was no sound, then she would have little to hope for (Friend. 1883). To find the sex of the first child, take a poppy bud, "sépare les deux sépales, et on regarde la forme des pétales qui dépassent; si elles sont divisées comme un pantalon, cela sera un garçon, si les sépales sont unis, cela sera une fille" (Loux). Poppy wine used to be made in Wiltshire from the petals. "Very heady", Jefferies said it was (Jefferies. 1880). The petals had medicinal uses, too, if for nothing else, they have served to colour medicines (Brownlow). But one keeps finding direct references to the flowers in prescriptions. In Chinese medicine, for instance, it is said that both flower and root are used for jaundice (F P Smith). But that sounds like doctrine of signatures, the plant's yellow juice to cure the yellow disease. The other doctrine of signatures usage is based, so it is said, on the shape of the capsules, vaguely like a skull; so they were regarded as appropriate for "diseases of the head" (Coles), by which was probably meant headache or migraine. A 15th century herbal says "also yff a man have the mygreme or hed-ache payn [pick] thys herbe and temper hit with aysell [vinegar] and make a plaster and ley to the fore-hede and to the templys et sessabit" (Grigson. 1974).

A syrup made from the flowers is even yet sometimes used as a sedative to soothe coughs (Schauenberg & Paris), and in France, young babies with whooping cough (coqueluche) were given infusions made from red poppy (Loux). Not all that long ago mothers on South Uist made a liquid from the flowers to help babies in their teething (Beith), and an infusion used to be given to relieve the pain of earache (V G Hatfield. 1994). Corn Poppy certainly has some sedative effect, though not as much as P somniferum. An old Welsh sleeping draught recipe reads: Boil poppy heads in ale, and let the patient drink it, and he will sleep (Ellis). In the Highlands the juice used to be put in children's food to make them sleep (Beith). Hill recommended syrup of red poppies as a sleep-procurer (Hill. 1754). This presumably is why red poppies were once used to treat mental illness. One of Lady Mildmay's courses for the treatment of "frenzy and madness" relied heavily on them - take one spoonful of the distilled water of red field poppy ..., give this for one potion. Also every night apply wool to the temples and forehead, wet in oil of poppy. Also put up a feather into each nostril wet with the same oil . (Pollock).

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