The history of the poppy flower is a rich one. The popular plant is not only famous for its pretty flowers, but also for its use in the production of a highly addictive drug called opium. It also allows us to produce some of the most important medicine in the world, drugs like codeine and morphine. Probably the biggest reason poppy is so valuable and sought after is its use as a painkiller. The products made from the poppy plant have made it one of the most famous flowers in history.
Botanically speaking, poppy is an herbaceous plant often grown for its bright colors. There are several species, all of which are in the subfamily Papaveroideae in the poppy family, Papaveraceae. Historically speaking, the poppy flower is a legend. Here are some of the most significant events throughout the history of the poppy flower.
Different species of poppy are native all over the world. The flower is naturally found from California to the Netherlands, Iran, and China. So we know this flower has been at least recognized by humans since the dawn of man.
The earliest references to actually using poppy are from the ancient land of Sumer. Sumer was located in lower Mesopotamia – which is now the lands of Iraq and Kuwait. Apparently, Sumerians grew poppy all the way back in 3,400 B.C.E. and cultivated the plant for its medicinal and recreational use. Art from the region appear to feature poppy seed pods in the hands of some of the great Sumerian rulers.
As the Sumerians used the plant, word spread quickly to neighboring cultures and civilizations. Demand began to increase, and before long, cross-continent trading of poppy began. It first started gaining influence in Assyria and Ancient Egypt. Eventually, it was one of the most important (and profitable) products being transported on the famous Silk Road that spread across much of Asia.
While civilizations rose and fell, poppy remained resilient. Over thousands of years, humans cultivated the plant all across Europe and Asia.
Perhaps the most significant event in human history caused by a plant were the opium wars. In the early 1800s, following a trading dispute between Great Britain and China, the British began smuggling opium into China for a huge profit. Almost 40 years later, there were over 10 million Chinese opium addicts. China eventually retaliated against the British, and an all-out naval war ensued.
There was eventually a second war that started in 1856. This time, a Chinese merchant captured an English vessel, which spurred another conflict. France also joined and teamed up with the British to fight against China. All of this was due to a plant that some people wanted to trade, while others wanted it gone!
Here’s another war-related history lesson about the poppy flower. During World War 1, a battle took place in a place called Flanders in France. After the fighting stopped, and shallow graves held the bodies of hundreds of soldiers, red poppies began to flower in mass amounts in the freshly upturned soil.
This inspired one of the most famous poems of the era, titled “In Flanders Field.” A Canadian soldier and poet wrote it in the Spring of 1915 and it quickly became the most recited poem from World War 1. The poem radiated across Canada, Europe, and the United States. Just a few years later, a woman from the US pledged to always wear a red poppy flower as a sign of remembrance for those who lost their lives during the war. Still today, some people wear a red poppy flower every year to honor fallen soldiers.
In northern Vietnam, a group of people known as the Hmong live. They recognized that their soil and elevation were perfect for growing a valuable cash crop: poppy flowers. The Hmong thrived for a couple of centuries and were able to build a royal palace using the money they acquired from trading opium made from their poppies. One of the reasons the Hmong were able to resist colonization by France was their economic power from the poppy flower.
In 1803, morphine was first extracted from poppy resin. At first, it was hailed as a miracle drug due to its ability to numb any pain, no matter how severe. Next was codeine, another incredibly powerful pain reliever. Then, in 1874, the German pharmaceutical company Bayer manufactured heroin from the poppy plant. Believe it or not, heroin was a popular medicine for a long time before its addictive properties were brought to light. Of course, now it’s listed as one of the most harmful drugs in the world. Today, we still use and prescribe drugs that originate from the plant.
Many medical advances wouldn’t have been possible without the poppy flower. This is the very same flower that traveled the Silk Road, started wars, and now provides solace for people in times of remembrance. Poppy is, without a doubt, one of the most famous flowers in history.