The Significance of the Red Poppy


For thousands of years, the poppy has been a symbol of both sleep and death, known since ancient times for its sleep-inducing and sometimes narcotic drug qualities. It is so connected with death and slumber that its common name is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word for sleep. In the 20th century, the red poppy came to be a symbol of wartime and remembrance of veterans, in part due to a poem inspired by the flower during World War I.

About Poppy Plants

Poppies make up the Papaver plant genus, a collection of annual and perennial flowers comprising at least 46 individual species. All members of the genus are characterized by their hairy stems and leaves, as well as their delicately petaled flowers, which open from an egg-shaped pod from summer into fall. Plants are often found along roadsides in cooler northern climates and in recently disturbed soils. Of the dozens of poppy species, two stand out as having particular fame: the opium poppy and the corn poppy.

Significance in Ancient Times

The poppy is known from both ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt; remains of the plant have been discovered in tombs dating to 3000 B.C. In Greek and Roman times, the poppy symbolized death and eternal sleep, and was frequently used in offerings commemorating the dead. But because the poppy frequently grew in fields alongside wheat and other grains, the flower was also one of the symbols of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest. The poppy’s common name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “popig,” meaning “to sleep,” a nod to the use of the seeds of certain species in a sedative drink.

Poppies and Wartime

The deep red color of the corn or field poppy, P. rhoeas, has long been reminiscent of blood and therefore death. The plant is also known as the Flanders or red poppy, and came to be the symbol of veterans and wartime after it inspired a poem during World War I. Chancing upon a field of poppies growing among gravestones after the second Battle of Yvres in Belgium, Canadian Army Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Field,” cementing the flower’s modern characterization as a symbol for the fallen. Artificial poppies made of red felt or paper are still traditionally handed out by veterans on Memorial Day in the United States and Armistice Day in England, and left as memorials on the gravestones of war casualties.

Drug and Pharmaceutical Poppies

Opiate drugs, including opium, morphine and heroin, are derived from the milky sap of the seed pod of the infamous opium poppy, P. somniferum. Though personal cultivation was outlawed in the United States in 1942, the opium poppy is still used by the pharmaceutical industry for sedative and analgesic drugs, and the plant’s seeds are used in baking and other foods.

Other Common Types

In addition to the common red annual poppy species, several types of perennial poppies are widely available for home gardens. Alpine poppy (P. alpinum), native to the European Alps, is an excellent choice for rock gardens in cooler climates; the plant is hardy to USDA Zone 4. The Moroccan poppy (P. atlanticum) is a late spring bloomer, with showy pink or peach-colored flowers. For extreme northern gardens, the arctic or Iceland poppy (P. nudicaule) and the oriental poppy (P. orientale) are both hardy to Zone 2, and both feature large flowers well suited for cutting. Other types of poppies, though they are not members of the Papaver genus, include the California poppy (Eschscholzia species) and the blue poppy (Meconopsis species).

Keywords: red poppy significance, red poppy history, poppy history uses

About this Author

Michelle Z. Donahue lives in Washington, D.C., and has worked there as a journalist since 2001, when she graduated from Vanderbilt University with a B.A. in English. She first covered politics as a reporter for the weekly Fairfax Times newspaper, then for the daily newswire Canadian Economic Press, where she reported from the U.S. Treasury. Donahue is currently a freelance writer.