The poppies grow...

In Tuscany, May is the month of poppies. Perfect goblets of scarlet, silky petals; flowers at their most essential, with no secrets inside. They begin by peeping up timidly amid fields of wheat, like a few red strands in a head of blonde hair. If you look at them up close, you will see just how fine their petals are, and you will wonder how they can possibly survive the downpours that this part of the year periodically unleashes. Botanists categorize the poppy as an archaeophyte, making it as old as humanity itself and probably older. As long as cereals have been grown, the poppy has grown.


For the Ancient Greeks, the poppy symbolized sleep and oblivion. Morpheus, the god of dreams, was often depicted with a poppy in his hands. Indeed, its name originates from a Celtic word that refers to broth or porridge, for that is what poppy leaves were traditionally used for: a calming mush to soothe a sore throat and to ease the sleep of babes. The petals contain small quantities of alkaloids, which have mild sedative properties. The Papaver somniferum is famous for the alkaloids it yields, opium among them, which are used for therapeutic products like morphine.

Today, poppies can be found littering green meadows or standing by roadsides and railways in a spectrum of reds that comes from the anthocyanin in their petals. Once upon a time, women used this chemical as a rouge to deepen the color of their lips and cheeks.

As a young girl walking with her grandmother through the countryside, I would always pick a handful of poppies and try to guess what color lay enclosed in the bud. As I opened them one by one, my grandmother would always tell me the fairytale that began “Poppies are born from children’s dreams”, and went more or less like this: “One day a young boy found a light piece of paper in the meadow; the wind must have dropped it there. He took it home and colored it in with the first crayon he could lay his hands on, a rich ruby red. He then cut out all the petals and cut a thin black line down the middle. The sun, amazed by the beauty of his creation, decided to cover the meadows with this flower. Thus the poppy was born.”

To this day, I can’t look at a red poppy without smiling and wondering if, as a young girl, I too dreamed of them.

*Isoquinoline alkaloids, of which rhoeadine dominates