Poppies were the ubiquitous plants of most cornfields from the
very beginning of agriculture up to the recent invention of herbicides.
At the dawn of the Neolithic age, the beginning
of the end for the hunter-gatherer, a blood red tide of flowers
slowly flowed westward and northward across Europe from the Middle
East and Asia Minor. The tiny poppy seed inseparably mixed with
the traded seed corn. It was a fitting omen of things to come
and the gods' symbol of the future costs of corn. For from then
till now the harvest is regularly fertilised with the sacrificial
blood of young men and what we now call collateral casualties.
For with the new economic strategy of agriculture
came the new economic strategy of war, the commercial industry
of fighting, with invasion seen as an investment opportunity.
Also a part of the package was the new dominant hierarchical social
model that we still use. From the well rewarded commander in chief
or high priest at the top, down to the grunt, at the bottom, whose
main incentives are avoiding the punishments set for disobedience,
and the promise of rewards for compliance in some future state,
heaven or a lottery win, after the hell he has lived on Earth.
religious constructs changed too. From the Eleusinian Mysteries to
Christianity, the cereal farmers' 'John Barleycorn' concept of
sacrifice, death and resurrection permeated human thought. The
concepts of unthinking submission and obedience to power were
given new divine justifications and human leaders an ever greater
status as the divine proxies. The sanctioned or justified killer
as hero became the principle protagonist of our stories. Actual
human life expectancy slumped as nutritional deficiencies (a result
of the more restricted diet) and diseases of overcrowding decimated
the new settled communities.
So why did we do it? Well human lives were shorter
and grimmer but, there were many more of them per hectare, the
full granary fosters the delusion of security and of course the
rich got richer, and with their wealth bought themselves the most
enjoyable aspects of the hunters' lifestyle. Those reluctant to
change would have found like the Bison hunters of the American
plains, the Kalahari bushmen and all those Scottish poachers memorialised
in song, transported to Van Diemen's Land, that having neighbours
who hold the agrarian concepts of property and class is not conducive
to a peaceful co-existence between Esau and Jacob. Those Esaus
who would not sell their birthright for a mess of potage usually
lost it in a more painful manner.
The goddess Demeter had a last backhanded
consolation prize to give, another poppy Papaver somniferum L,
to give us opium and morphine to ease the agonies of the end results
of our choices.
Non-medical uses of poppies
Both plants are toxic to mammals, though the
toxicity is low. The seed is not toxic
Papaver rhoeas: The oil, extracted from the seeds,
is used by artists as a medium for colours that will be badly
affected by the greater yellowing of linseed oil and as a siccative
to hasten drying.
Seed - raw or cooked. Is much used as a flavouring in cakes, bread,
fruit salads etc. The seeds are rather small, but they are contained
in fairly large seed pods and so are easy to harvest. The seeds
are perfectly safe to eat, containing none of the alkaloids associated
with other parts of the plant. Leaves - raw or cooked, can be
used like spinach or as a flavouring in soups and salads. The
leaves should not be used after the flower buds have formed. Some
caution is advised, see the note above on toxicity. An edible
oil is obtained from the seed. Said to be an excellent substitute
for olive oil, it can be used in salad dressings or for cooking.
A syrup can be prepared from the scarlet flower petals, it is
used in soups, gruels etc. A red dye from the petals is used as
a food flavouring, especially in wine.
A red dye is obtained from the flowers, though it is very fugitive.
A syrup made from the petals has been used as a colouring matter
for old inks also very fugitive. The petals are used to add colour
Medicinal uses of poppies
Anodyne, Cancer, Emmenagogue, Emollient, Expectorant,
Hypnotic, Sedative, Tonic.
of medical actions
The flowers of corn poppy have a long history of
medicinal usage, especially for ailments in the elderly and children.
Chiefly employed as a mild pain reliever and as a treatment for
irritable coughs, it also helps to reduce nervous over-activity.
Unlike the related opium poppy (P. somniferum) it is thought to
be non-addictive. However, the plant does contain alkaloids, which
are still under investigation, and so should only be used under
the supervision of a qualified herbalist. The flowers and petals
are anodyne, emollient, emmenagogue, expectorant, hypnotic, slightly
narcotic and sedative. An infusion is taken internally in the
treatment of bronchial complaints and coughs, insomnia, poor digestion,
nervous digestive disorders and minor painful conditions. The
flowers are also used in the treatment of jaundice. The petals
are harvested as the flowers open and are dried for later use.
They should be collected on a dry day and can be dried or made
into a syrup. The latex in the seedpods is narcotic and slightly
sedative. It can be used in very small quantities, and under expert
supervision, as a sleep-inducing drug. The leaves and seeds are
tonic. They are useful in the treatment of low fevers. The plant
has been suggested as having anticancer properties.
The plant is sudorific, I suspect the plant also has similar actions
to P. rhoeas but I cannot find the references to support this
(folk taxonomy often does not distinguish between these two species).
Plants For A Future,
Flora Celtica, www.floraceltica.com/,
Flora Celtica is an international project based at the Royal Botanic
Garden Edinburgh, documenting and promoting the knowledge and
sustainable use of native plants in the Celtic countries and regions
The Really WILD Food Guide, www.countrylovers.co.uk/wildfoodjj/index.htm