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The Poppy

Keats had lifted up his hymeneal curls from out The poppy-seeded wine,
With ambrosial mouth had kissed my forehead, Clasped the hand of noble love in mine
~ Oscar Wilde,1890

Oriental Poppies, 1928
Oriental Poppies, 1928

  Only a handful of common garden flowers, all once so valued in medicine are to be found in drugstores today. Among them the poppy is one of the most important. They are few people who get through life without being grateful at one time or another for the freedom from pain that the medicine made from poppies can bring. Morphine and Codeine are two familiar drugs made from the poppy.

    It may have been as early as Neolithic times that man became aware of the potent qualities latent in the seed pod of the fragile poppy flower. Poppies have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back 3,000 years. There is even a prescription for poppy to be given to children to stop their crying. It was known to the Assyrians and the mythology of Greece. Ancient Greeks thought that poppies were a sign of fertility. Poppy seeds were thought to bring health and strength so Greek athletes were given mixtures of poppy seeds, honey, and wine.

    Demeter,so the legend goes, created the poppy for the purpose of getting some sleep after the loss of her daughter Persephone. The twin brothers Hypnos and Thanatos (sleep and Death) were represented as crowned with poppies or carrying poppies in their hands. Obviously the Greeks were aware of the fact that a merciful sleep induced by opium could lead to death. Pliny gave in one breath a careful description of how to collect raw opium and in the next issued a warning that "taken in too large quantities is productive of sleep unto death even." Dioscorides said bluntly "being drunk too much...it kills."

    It was introduced into England by the Romans. Their mythology linked the papaver plant to Somnus, the god of sleep. The Greeks followed a similar line, connecting it to Hymnus, the god of rest and oblivion. Christianity gave its symbolism a new twist. Carved into the benches of some medieval church pews it represented the belief that we rest in anticipation of the Last Day. Cynics used to add that it also represented the slumber 'begun when the priest did speak!' Perhaps this explains why carved poppies were not a feature of all medieval church pews.

    The danger of opium unfortunately did not stop many quacks in old England from making up medicine and touting the advantages of opium to make their fortunes. Elizabeth Kent in her Flora Domestica wrote "The use of these stimulants and narcotics, especially in little children, without special care is to be highly deprecated and lays in their small frames the foundations of many disorders besides putting many to their last sleep." During the Industrial Revolution, Godfrey`s Cordial was very popular. Men thrown out of work by the chaotic conditions of the infant industries found opium cheaper than food. A few coppers would buy the "cordial" that kept hungry children quiet. And Godfrey`s Cordial was still popular in 1910. It took the pure food and drug laws of a later day to remove this dangerous narcotic from patent medicines. In the sixteen hundreds a large dollop of opium could be added to anything to bring miraculous relief to the sick and suffering. The quacks were out for easy money and plenty of it.They took full advantage of opium to make their fortunes. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the tincture of opium called laudanum was as casually bought and used as aspirin is today. A large number of poets and writers have been opium addicts.opium poppy

    Opium was also the main reason for England's war with China in 1839. The East India Company was faced with a problem. For centuries opium had been cultivated in India, grown and processed in Bengal. But the East India Company realized that opium's addictive properties would certainly diminish their unskilled labor force in India so why not sell it to the Chinese instead? However China did not want any "foreign mud." The East India Company kept its skirts clean by auctioning off its opium crop to "country firms" that is, independent merchants who hired ships and ran the contraband into Canton, which was the only port in which "barbarian " ships were permitted. This illegal trade was supported by the hong merchants, who were a monopolistic group that had no support from the Chinese government in dealing with foreigners. They handed out vast sums to "fix" government officials from asking inconvenient questions and in so doing fastened upon their countrymen a most destructive habit. Their cooperation made the opium trade possible. They had a large network similar to the organized crime of some of our own great cities. While the opium trade grew by leaps and bounds, the difficulties of doing business in China increased. The highhanded and insulting regulations laid down by the hongs became intolerable and England, with Waterloo behind her felt war was the answer. England sent several men-of-war to escort some of the opium ships putting in at Canton. The Chinese fired on these ships. The men-of-war returned the fire and the war was on. It lasted three years. At the peace table China ceded Hong Kong to England and opened up five treaty ports to trade with the west. Opium was never mentioned in the peace treaty, so it was still contraband and the illegal traffic continued until 1908. It is an ugly story. Not all Englishmen approved of England's action in regards to China. Many people including Gladstone spoke out against it.

    Oriental poppies contain opium.The corn poppy, however, does not contain opium. It is an emblem that commemorates those who died in wars.

    The poppy was noticed during the Napoleonic Wars, as the mysterious flower that bloomed around the fresh graves of fallen soldiers.

    A Canadian doctor, Lt.-Col. John McCrae, immortalized the poppy in his famous poem In Flanders Fields. He was so moved by the spectacle of the makeshift graves of British soldiers in N. France that shortly before that war claimed him as another victim he wrote:

califpoppy.gif"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".

After the war, an American, Moina Michael, began wearing a poppy in memory of the war dead.

    Remember also when Dorothy fell asleep in a field of flowers in the Wizard of Oz? That's right! They were poppies. 

The "California Poppy" is our State flower.

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