POPPY (Papaver somniferum and Papaver rhoeas): Origin: difficult to determine as more than 100 species are distributed within the temperate zones of the world. The poppy is linked in mythology with eternal sleep, oblivion, and association with blood. Since poppies commonly grow amidst fields of wheat and it was Demeter who offered the gift of grain to Triptolemus (i.e. symbolic of civilization, the great Earth Mother commonly is depicted with tufts of wheat and poppies in her hair. Poppy petals stretch tight and held in both hands have been a traditional method to determine whether or not one’s lover is faithful: when the taunt petal is struck and makes a loud sound the report is cause for happiness – but should the petal break it symbolizes the opposite. Poppy is considered by the Chinese to be the flower associated with the month of December. Throughout portions of Europe, however, the poppy plant is considered sinister and cannot be brought inside the house.
The Gerarde herbal reports that if poppy leaves and seeds are pounded and mixed with vinegar, woman’s milk, and saffron, the product will cure Saint Anthony’s fire [ergot poisoning] and ease gout; seeds of black poppies prepared in wine will stop upset stomach; candles made of white poppy seed mixed with almond milk will cause sleep when lit.
The Culpeper herbal provides details for three types of poppy: white and black (raised in home gardens), and the wild poppy or corn rose (growing in wheat fields). Regarding the white and black poppy Culpeper says that their use is similar: he states that poppy juice is used to make opium. Poppy seeds are made into syrup used to help the sick and weak rest and sleep; the juice poppies helps hoarseness of the throat and especially useful if one has lost their voice. Seeds of black poppies boiled in wine stops flux of the belly [diarrhea]; if the heads of poppy plants, devoid of seeds, are boiled in water, this will result in rest and sleep as do the leaves,. Poppy leaves when bruised and mixed with vinegar, barley meal, and hog’s grease, will cool all inflammations and the disease called St. Anthony’s fire [ergot poisoning]; mixtures of poppies dripped into hollow teeth will ease the pain of toothache and the preparation also will ease the pain of gout. Regarding the wild poppy Culpeper states that its use prevents the falling sickness; a syrup made of the flower has good effect on pleurisy; if poppy flowers added to distilled water is drunk in the evenings and mornings, this is useful against surfeits [effects of eating too much]. Culpeper repeated the warning of the ancient Greek physician, Galen [2nd century CE], who said: [poppy] seed is dangerous to be used inwardly.
Similarly, there is a European tradition that to look into the heart of a poppy will cause blindness and earache. An old English tradition holds that the red color of poppies reflects dragon blood, specifically of the beast slain by Saint Margaret. In Medieval Europe poppies were believed to spring from dragon’s blood. Poppies frequently invade areas of disturbed ground, hence their association with battlefield sites and the belief that poppies rise from the blood of fallen soldiers. Despite such traditions, poppy seeds are considered an important Christmas food and used to decorate breads and cakes throughout Eastern Europe. It is said that poppies grew “from the tears of Aphrodite. Poppy seeds and opium offered to Hymnos, god of sleep, and poppies sacred to Demeter. An old English tradition holds that children should not pick poppies because if a petal was lost during the act, then the child was liable to be struck by lightning; in rural portions of England where wild poppies grow dispersed within wheat fields, and are called headaches; women commonly shun these flowers and avoid being touched by their petals; other rural English beliefs hold that poppies laced near the eye will cause blindness and if handled roughly, will produce warts; children told that if they smell poppy flowers, they will experience nosebleeds and/or headache; since the 19th century poppies symbolic of soldiers who died in battle.
(Summarized from: Gerarde, 1597, pp. 295-298; Culpeper, 1653, pp. 145-146; Thiselton-Dyer, 1889, p.229; Skinner, 1911; pp. 225-227; Rätsch, 1992, p. 137; Vickery, 1995, pp. 286-288; Grivetti, 2004, p. 98).