Long considered a plant that grows on the boundaries between life and death, the red poppy, known by the Assyrians as the daughter of the fields, is a prolific and beautiful sight in the countryside near my home – as well as having taken up residence in the vegetable patch, where we now have several large clumps of the plants growing and producing huge clumps of glorious silky red flowers. I’ve long loved this elegant, graceful plant that seems so fragile and is yet so robust. Poppies are, I think, the symbol of love and loss – they bloomed on the field of the Sonne after the battles that so devastated the world, and, going a good deal further back than that, the flowers were originally given to the earth by Somnus, who caused them to grow throughout the crops on seeing the weary Demeter / Ceres as she searched the earth in vain for her lost daughter, gone beneath the fields to the land of Hades, the fabled and often feared Underworld.
The sister to the lovely red poppy is of course the equally well known opium poppy – the dark side of the coin, in my opinion, with a much stronger link to death and sleep, walking an often fine line between the two. I sometimes think that the beautiful and dangerous opium poppy was created by Hades in mockery of Demeter’s frantic searching for her daughter, possibly putting temptation and a goad in her path all in the form of one silvery plant – for while the red poppy can bring sleep, the opium poppy does a great deal more than that, bringing a sleep like death, a sleep that can turn into death if you aren’t very careful with the dosage. It is, of itself, a passage between the worlds and can facilitate the descent to the Underworld – however unlike Persephone / Kore, it is not a descent you will be able to return from. It’s a strong painkiller as well, giving us our modern drug morphine, and is highly addictive. I think of opium poppy as Queen of the Underworld – it’s tall and stately but somehow deadly looking for all its beauty, lushly exotic and dangerous, with a languid torpor that to me shouts of its hidden uses and lore. Not a plant to approach with impunity, and most certainly not one to muck around with! The Queen of the Underworld has her merciful side though, as do many of the Underworld deities – she offers sleep and relief from pain, even if that relief can only be gained in death. A mercy indeed for the ancient world, who revered the Poppy almost as a deity in her own right.
I think that these two poppies are flip sides of the same coin – the red poppy with its daytime associations, roots still in the Underworld, and the opium poppy which is so firmly of the Underworld yet blooms in this world. Both walk boundaries and thresholds, which I suppose will also give both of them a strong link with faery, with transformation, boundaries, change. I think we can learn lessons from the poppy about letting go, about relinquishing the need to control everything and ‘going with the flow of events’, as it were, whilst still having courage and resilience in the face of adversity. Poppy teaches us to relearn our wild nature, able to spring up and thrive in disturbed ground. Both plants speak of love and death, very strongly, which are both life changing events in their own right.
I’ve been experimenting with the red poppy, the original subject of this post, having intended to have an experiment for some time now, and today I made up a syrup of red poppy petals, lavender and chamomile – I’m calling it the sweet slumber syrup because the basic plan was to use it to encourage restful sleep. Poppy petals on their own make quite a bitter drink, unsurprisingly enough, so I added in the lavender and chamomile to improve the flavour of it. The finished syrup is fragrant and pleasant tasting, though I have not had chance as yet to test its efficacy. I’d probably also use it to soothe chesty coughs and possibly also stomach upsets, though its main purpose was intended to be as a gentle sedative and mild anodyne. The next thing I intend to do is make a red poppy petal tincture.
Sweet Slumber Syrup Recipe
1pt of loosely packed Red Poppy petals
3tsps Lavender flowers
20g Chamomile flowers
Put the Poppy petals into a saucepan and cover with the water, then bring to a slow boil until the flower petals are leached of their colour. It’s a rather beautiful process – the petals look like butterfly wings as they float on the surface of the water, slowly giving up their brilliant red colour and exchanging it for a very soft dusky shade of sorrowful pink. They gain a translucence and fragility with this process that is quite remarkable and very beautiful. The liquid will turn a deep, rich red, the colour of garnets or, appropriately enough, spilled blood. At this point, I added the Lavender and Chamomile, and then simmered the whole lot for a good half hour until it has reduced by about half. The point here is to make a good, strong decoction, and your whole house will be scented with Lavender and Chamomile afterwards. Strain out the herbs, squeezing the spent plant matter thoroughly to remove all the liquid, then put the liquid back into the pan and add the sugar. Slowly warm until the sugar dissolves, then bring up to a steady boil until the syrup starts to thicken. Let it cool, then pour into small, sterilised bottles. Label and store in the fridge – if this is like the other syrups I have made, this should keep for a good three or four months in the fridge, possibly longer. I’d probably use no more than 2tsps per dose, and see how you get on. I’ll try it out myself and report back on amounts and how effective it is.