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Poppy Flower Meaning and Symbolism

Poppies are among the most well-known flowers. They grow easily in the wild and while they are easily recognizable by their intense red shades, they also come in a variety of other colors. These flowes have a range of uses, and have been  used for centuries in different contexts.

In addition to all this, poppies are also highly symbolic flowers. The symbolism varies depending on the color of the flower, as well as the cultural lense its viewed through.

All this make poppies an excellent option for bouquets and gifts.  Here’s what you need to know about them.

What Are Poppies?

A member of the Papaveraceae family and Papaveroidea subfamily, poppies are colorful flower-producing herbaceous plants. The name poppy is derived from the Latin word “pappa” which means milk. This is because when poppy stems are cut, they produce milk-looking sticky latex.

Papaver, the most common poppy genus, houses about one hundred flowering cultivars with ranging shades of yellow, blue, red, white, purple, ivory, orange, cream, and pink.

Usually, poppy flowers have four to six petals housing an ovary surrounded by lots of stamens and lacy-looking or fern-like foliage.

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Poppy Symbolism and Meaning

Red poppy

In general terms, poppies symbolize peace, sleep, and death. The reasoning behind this symbolism comes from the sedative aspect of opium harvested from poppies, and the bright red color of the popular red poppy respectively.

In addition, poppies also depict fruitfulness and fertility. For Christians, it is a symbol of the blood of Christ, His suffering, and sacrifice.

The most symbolic use of the poppy flower, however, is that it’s worn on Remembrance Day, November 11. Remembrance Day is a commemorative day set aside after World War I to honor soldiers who died in the line of duty in battles fought in extensive poppy farms. The poppy flower and Remembrance Day (for all ensuing wars) are intertwined, so much so that November 11 has also come to be known as poppy day.

Poppy Symbolism According to Color

Below are the most common poppy flower colors and their meanings:

  • The Red Poppy

Connected to a charity created by World War I veterans,The Royal British Legion, who assert that it is a representative of remembrance and hope, the red poppy is the most common symbol of the commemoration of the First World War and ensuing conflicts.

While the above is true in Western cultures, in Eastern cultures however, the red poppy is a symbol of love and success and is often concomitant with romantic gestures.

  • The Black Poppy

Connected to an initiative called Black Poppy Rose, the black poppy is a symbol of the commemoration of black, African, and Caribbean persons to the war as civilians, servicemen, and servicewomen.

  • The Purple Poppy

Connected to the initiative The Purple Poppy by the War Horse Memorial, the purple poppy has been commonly adopted as a commemoration of animal war victims, as well as animals who serve in the frontline with and as a support to modern-day armed forces.

Animals that fell victim to the war are dogs, pigeons, and horses. Particularly, many horses lost their lives or sustained injuries during World War I. Many feel that the animals’ service should be treated as equal to the humans’ and thus wear the purple poppy for that reason.

Aside from war commemoration, the purple poppy is a symbol of imagination, luxury, and success.

  • The White Poppy

In Western cultures, the white poppy is a symbol of peace. It can also be worn on Remembrance Day as a commemoration of lives lost in battle but with an emphasis on peace achievement and as a challenge to our view of war.

Factions that prefer the white poppy feel that the red poppy exalts war, or that it focuses on the commemoration of British armed forces and its allies while leaving out the enemy and civilian war victims. As such, the white poppy has in some places, also become a symbol of protest.

In Eastern cultures, white poppies are a sign of death and can be found in funerals and memorials.

  • The Pink and Blue Poppy

Just like the purple poppy, the pink poppy and the blue poppy are a symbol of imagination, luxury, and success.

Poppy Myths and Stories 

There are many stories and myths that involve the poppy.

The most popular poppy story is that of Flanders Field, which was destroyed and saw the loss of 87,000 allied soldiers. However, in the subsequent spring, the land came alive again with red poppies.

Inspired by the sight, Lt. Colonel John McCrae, the brigade who had been treating the wounded, wrote the poem, “In Flanders Field” which in turn inspired the wearing of poppies on Remembrance Day.

Flanders field poppy poem
  • In the fictional story, “The Wizard of Oz”, the witch’s castle was surrounded by poppy fields meant to put trespassers into eternal sleep. Although in truth the whiff of poppy cannot put one into slumber, the tale takes advantage of the sleep and death symbolism of the poppy flower.
  • Poppy flowers were commonplace in ancient Greece. For instance, they were associated with Hypnos, Thanatos, and Morpheus, the gods of sleep, death, and dreams respectively. While Hypnos and Thanatos were depicted donning crowns made of poppies, it is from the name Morpheus that the drug morphine got its name. Moreover, the goddess of harvest Demeter is said to have created the poppy so that it could help her sleep after the abduction of her daughter Phersephone by Hades. The myth goes that after her abduction, poppy plants grew in Phersephone’s footprints.
  • In the mid-1800s, the British introduced Opium, a derivative of Opium poppy, to China as a way to fund their desire for tea produced in China. This caused a high addiction rate among the people of China leading to the Opium Wars. Later, while working on the American railroads, the Chinese brought Opium to America and distributed it in the infamous opium dens.

Poppy Tattoos

A poppy flower is a great choice for anyone in need of an elegant, beautiful tattoo with a deeper meaning. Most poppy tattoo designs and colors are used as ways to express one’s feelings.

Most poppy tattoos are depicted in the flowers characteristic shade of red. However, black poppy tattoos are popular too. Below are some of the most popular poppy tattoos alongside their meanings:

  • The Lone Flower

Commonly drawn on the ankle or the wrist, this simple design of a single flower with a naked stem is an indication of a lonely, proud yet sentimental person who loves life.

  • Lovers of the Field

This design of two poppy flowers beside each other usually accompanied with words of devotion is a depiction of passion, romance, and loyalty between two lovers.

  • Unforgettable

Characterized by an open outward-facing poppy flower, this design, which is also the Remembrance Day emblem, is a sign of remembrance and respect to World War I heroes.

  • In Full Bloom

This intricate design of flowers blooming on branches twirled with vines, is common among women and symbolizes charisma, tenderness, free-spiritedness, and strength.

  • Red Poppy Tattoo

Like the lone flower, a red poppy tattoo is representative of a person who is comfortable alone. This design is common among persons coping with unrequited love.

However, when drawn as a pair, the red poppy is a symbol of deep affection and fidelity.

  • Black Poppy Tattoo

This can either be a symbol of unnatural forces or of anxiety, death, and grief.

Wearing a Poppy Flower

Poppies should be worn over the heart, on the left side of the body, due to the respectable nature of their purpose, especially when worn on Remembrance Day. The pin used should not interfere with the display of the flower.

Uses of the Poppy Flower

Uses of poppy
  • Historic Uses

Known to have originated from the Sumerians, poppy flowers have for centuries been known as the happy plant and used for sleep induction. As such, they were widely used in funerals and as a sacrifice to the dead.

The ancient Greeks used opium, harvested from the opium poppy, as a pain reliever, a sleep inducer, and a reliever of bowels. The Greeks also believed that opium could be used to protect one from being poisoned. Opium was a preferred pain reliever because of its pleasurable effects.

In the 1800s, morphine a derivative of opium was known as a miracle drug and prescribed widely by physicians as relief for severe pain. It was used in  World War I to treat the wounded. Around the same time, heroin was synthesized as a cure for headaches and colds and as a solution to morphine addiction. It was later outlawed after its addiction rate was noted.

  • Modern Uses

The majority of opium derivatives are used in medicine as controlled drugs owing to their benefits and potential for abuse.

Poppy seeds are a culinary ingredient and are used for confectionery and baking purposes. Poppyseed oil is also used as butter to flavor pasta, vegetables, and potatoes among other dishes.

Because of how fast it can dry, juice extracted from poppy seeds is used to make perfumes and soaps, as well as greases and oil vanishing.

It goes without saying that due to the beauty of the poppy flower, it is widely used for ornamental purposes. A lot of people plant poppy flowers in their gardens for this purpose.

Wrapping Up

The Poppy flower is rich in history and while it’s been valued for its beauty and uses, it is also surrounded by controversy. Still, its patent beauty, immeasurable benefits, and imperative symbolism can’t be ignored.

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Rose Mulu
Rose Mulu

With a keen interest in understanding why life was and is as it is, Rose has been studying religion, culture, and history for over fifteen years. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication and uses this, together with her knack for literature, to share her knowledge and insight with the world.