In Britain and other countries of the Commonwealth, at this time of year many of us wear the remembrance poppy. I’ve lived in England and Wales all my life so for me, mid-autumn has always included remembrance poppies. Many of us wear them to honour servicemen and women killed during World War 1 and in other conflicts since.
They’re not real poppies, of course. Not at this time of year. Remembrance poppies are made from red paper and sold to raise funds for the Royal British Legion.
The iconic design of the remembrance poppy depicts the common poppy (Papaver rhoeas), using its red petals to represent the bloodshed of war. P. rhoeas is an annual weed which appears on disturbed ground. At sites where trench warfare has been, for example: hence the poppy fields of Flanders. Also at sites of semi-natural grassland such as meadows and roadsides. In lowland parts of Britain, P. rhoeas is often to be seen blooming in early summer. Poppy fields give our landscapes great beauty and they’re of interest for science and conservation because they’re often rich in species of plants, insects and other organisms.
Poppies are good to eat, too. Their seeds are used in breadmaking and as a mild spice. Here are some poppy-seed recipes. P. rhoeas seeds are said to be mildly narcotic when raw. But unlike some other plant products, they’re not extolled as a ‘legal high’. Chris Harding at the Guardian tells us about hallucinogenic foods but he barely mentions the common poppy. Instead poppy seeds are promoted as a health food. Global Grains tells us about their nutritional value. Kanika Goswami at Buzzle tells us that Holland and Canada are world leaders in production of poppy seeds
It’s no surprise that the common poppy is mildly narcotic. After all, it’s in the same genus as the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). The seeds of P. somniferum are an important source of pharmaceuticals (morphine and codeine) as well as illegal drugs including heroin.
For gardeners, there are several more species and hybrids of true poppies, Papaver. There are white ones, yellow ones and orange ones. Carol Klein at the Guardian tells us about oriental poppies. But perhaps the most striking poppy of all isn’t a Papaver. It’s the Himalayan blue poppy (Mecanopsis spp.). Most ‘blue’ flowers are purple or mauve, but blue Mecanopsis really is blue.