To some, rosemary may be for remembrance, but for World War I veterans, it was the red poppy that reigned supreme as a reminder of the Great War. Known as the Flanders Poppy, the red poppy has a long and turbulent history filled with war and death. It has inspired poetry since the time of Homer and has been used for its medicinal qualities for over 6,000 years.
An ancient plant, poppies have been cultivated since 4,000 BC. While many people may associate it with the Orient, it actually was native to southwestern Europe, originating first in Italy and southern France, before spreading eastward toward the Orient and Mesopotamia.
While most people may associate the poppy with its darker qualities--namely the production of opium, an illegal narcotic--it was most likely first cultivated as a valuable food source, given the rich quality of its oil. Ancient Greeks were well familiar with it as a sleep and digestive aid, but even then it was widely recognized that ample quantities of concentrated red poppy oil could be lethal.
Cultivation of the Plant Spreads
As a cultivated plant, the poppy reached the Mideast in the 7th century and made its way further eastward, reaching southeast Asia by the 12th century. By the 16th century the red poppy and opium were trading staples for India.
The red poppy is a hardy survivor, and its seeds can lie dormant in fallow soil for years before erupting into beautiful blooming plants when the soil is cultivated or well churned. This unusual quality led to spectacular fields of brilliant red blooms following the devastating battles of World War I, especially in the battlefields of France, where just such an occurrence inspired one man to poetry.
Lt. Col. John McCrea's experiences with war in 1915 led him to write the poem, "In Flanders Fields" in which he gazed upon wild red poppies blooming besides scenes of death. Lt. Col. McCrea, however, was not the first person inspired by poppies. The Greek poet Homer mentions poppies in his epic poem, "The Illiad," and in "The Odyssey," he mentions a drug given to people to forget their grief.