In Flander's fields

The Oriental poppies are coming on as we reach Memorial Day. Since the 19th century, poppies of all kinds have been associated in Europe and North America with war and those who died in battle. The seeds sit dormant for years, then sprout when the soil is disrupted. The association of poppies with heroic death probably started with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when red poppies appeared after the bloody field was plowed.

Lettuce, lactos, galaxy, opium are among the words that mean milk. Squeeze the center of a lettuce and it will exude the same white juice as the poppy stem (thus causing many a salad eater to flunk a drugs test).

Dry the poppy juice and you have opium. In Afghanistan — where before the 1979 Soviet invasion, smoking opium was largely a weekend recreation, rather than a full-time addiction — it’s said that if you make a tea from the seed hull it will strip you of the burning desire for more.

Children in a poppy field in Afghanistan. Photo by Sheryl Shapiro, 2003

Children in a poppy field in Afghanistan. Photo by Sheryl Shapiro, 2003

My Oriental poppies are mostly traditional, bright orange, explosive, intense. Over the years I’ve added reds, magentas, pale pinks and an exquisite coral-colored variation. Cauterize the stem before putting them in a vase … even so, the fragile, extravagantly hued tissue-like petals will fall within a day or two at the most.

My grandmother and I made poppy dolls, little ballerinas and princesses, contrived by turning the flower inside out, using the split stalks for arms and legs, tying grass around the dolly’s “waist,” and drawing a face on the seed box with a pin. I made a house for them under a boxwood, with furniture fashioned of leaves, pebbles, and acorns.

Oriental poppy

In Ireland and England, poppies are sometimes called “headaches,” probably because of the flower’s reputation as a soporific and the hangover afterward. Picking poppies was also said to cause blindness, earache, and nosebleeds. It was considered particularly bad for unmarried women to touch them. Perhaps the belief has something to do with their vulnerability to the aggressive desires of men, and is related to old customs of abducting brides.

And remember how, in Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West causes poppies to materialize on Dorothy’s path, so she and her allies fall asleep, giving the nasty winged monkeys the opportunity to carry her away to the Witch’s castle.

Persephone, on her way to becoming Goddess of the Underworld, was drawn one morning to poppies planted by Hades to attract her. As she plucked them, he rose from underground and stole her away.

In one variation of the tale, the poppy was created by Somnus, Greek God of Sleep, to help Persephone’s mother Demeter rest and forget after the fervent, disappointing search for her daughter. And when she awoke, soothed and refreshed, the crops began again to sprout. Thus many European farmers believed poppies in the field were essential for the well-being of the grain.