Field Poppy - Papaver rhoeas
From the beginnings of agriculture poppies have brightened our cornfields. Their very name is ancient, coming down to us through the Latin from the Sumerian papa. Seeds found in archaeological sites show poppies to have grown with barley in Twelfth Dynasty Egypt (2,500 BC). The Assyrians knew them as "Daughters of the Field"), and Ceres, the Roman goddess of the corn, was depicted with a bunch of wheat and poppies in her hand. From their home in the Middle East they spread with agriculture around the world, reaching Britain in the Neolithic Era and in more recent times being introduced into North America, Australia and New Zealand.
The modern farmer, however, looks at poppies with more realism than romanticism for he knows by how much an infestation of this ubiquitous weed can reduce the yields of his crops. Not surprisingly, therefore, poppies were amongst the first weeds to be targeted when effective herbicides became available in the early 1950s. It soon became a matter of embarrassment to the good husbandman if less than perfect matching of sprayer bouts left tell-tale swaths of 'red-weed' in his otherwise clean crops.
How was it then that, after so many years of chemically assisted farming, poppies came up in such riotous abundance amongst the newly planted trees on Magog Down? The answer lies in the plant's outstanding prolifigacy (a single plant missed by the sprayer will return 14 to 20 thousand seeds to the soil), and by the seed's mysterious ability to survive dormant for very many years. While the majority of seeds germinate within a year of being shed, some lie dormant for two or three years and some, if they are left undisturbed, for very much longer (dormancy of over 30 years has been recorded). Not surprisingly, therefore, if you disturb almost any soil which has grown crops in the past, poppies will spring up even if good herbicide practice has kept them in check for years. It was the poppies' fondness for disturbed ground which led to their abundance on the shell-ploughed battlefields of the First World War - an association which, with their blood-red colour, has made them a symbol of remembrance.
Our wild poppies are free of those narcotic substances which make the opium poppy (P. somniferum) so valuable to the pharmacist and so dangerous to the drug addict. Field poppies do, however, contain poisonous alkaloids, though not at levels high enough to endanger those who enjoy their seeds sprinkled on bread or biscuits. Smelling the flowers is reputed to cause headache, yet they were once recommended as a cure for migraine (presumably an application of the homeopathic principle).
One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.
Photo by Jill Butler