Poppy Flower Meaning and Symbolism in the Language of Flowers

The poppy flower (Papaver rhoeas) is an enduring symbol of remembrance and hope, particularly in recognition of the Armed Forces worldwide. Ancient Greeks associated poppies with abundance and fertility; in Ancient Egyptian art, the poppy flower often appears as an offering to the deceased.

Everything You Need to Know About Poppy Flower Meaning, Types and Uses

Etymological Meaning

The poppy gets its name from the Latin word ‘pappa,” meaning milk. This is about the cut flower stems that leak a sticky, latex sap that looks like milk.

Poppy Flowers and Remembrance

The poppy came to be the symbol of remembrance of those who gave their lives in WWI after the publication of the poem “In Flanders Field” written by Lt. Colonel John McCrae

John McCrae was a Canadian brigade surgeon who treated the wounded after the release of chlorine gas by the German forces. 

Although the land was destroyed and 87,000 allied soldiers lost their lives in northern France and northern Belgium (Flanders) during that battle, the following spring, the land came alive with bright red poppies, inspiring MCrae to write the touching poem “In Flanders Field.”

Anna Guerin from France quickly championed the red poppy as the symbol of remembrance and worked to establish a National Poppy Day. This day is celebrated on November 11, also known as Armistice or Remembrance Day. In the US, the poppy is typically worn on Memorial Day in May.

Victorian Times

In the Victorian era, flowers were used as symbols to express feelings and sentiments, which often couldn’t be spoken due to the strict societal norms of the time. This secret flower language, also known as “floriography,” allowed individuals to send coded messages to one another through flowers.

In the Victorian language of flowers, the poppy had rich meaning and symbolism, which was often determined by the respective color of the poppy:

  1. Red Poppy: This was most commonly associated with pleasure. However, given the poppy’s historical connections with sleep and death, it was also considered symbolic of eternal sleep.
  2. White Poppy: Represented sleep and peaceful rest. This could be a wish for the recipient to have a calm and restful night or have deeper meanings related to death and the afterlife.
  3. Yellow Poppy: Symbolized wealth and success. If someone received a bouquet with yellow poppies, it could be a wish for prosperity and achievement.
  4. Black Poppy: This symbol of oblivion was less common in bouquets due to its association with forgetfulness and loss.

Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology, the poppy was associated with Hypnos and Thanatos – the gods of sleep and death, respectively. The Greek goddess of the harvest, Demeter, created the poppy to help her sleep after her daughter, Persephone, was abducted by Hades.

Moreover, the god Morpheus, the source of the word “morphine,” was also associated with poppies due to their hypnotic qualities.

Poppy Flowers and Ancient Sumerians

Some of the earliest historical references to the poppy come from the ancient Sumerians, who cultivated the plant for its opium content. They used opium for medicinal as well as ritualistic purposes.

The State Flower of California (Eschscholzia californica)

The California poppy is the state flower of California. This golden poppy grows wild throughout the state and is known as “the flame flower” or “cup of gold”. 

In fact, California celebrates an entire week (May 13th to May 18th) as Poppy Week and designates April 6th as California Poppy Day.

Ancient Egypt

Interestingly, in Egyptian art, the poppy flower often appears as an offering to the deceased. It’s thought this was to ensure peaceful rest in the afterlife.

Roman Times

The Romans also associated poppy flowers with sleep. Somnus, the Roman god of sleep (equivalent of Hypnos in Greek mythology), was often depicted with poppies.

Minoan Civilization

In Crete, the famous “Poppy Goddess” figurine depicts a female deity with poppies, possibly indicating a ritual use of the plant or a symbolic connection to fertility, rebirth, or the cycle of life and death.

Poppy Fields in The Wizard of Oz

Poppy fields surrounded the witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz to put trespassers into a permanent sleep and prevent them from reaching the castle. 

Dorothy, the Lion, and Toto fall into a deep slumber as they walk through the field of poppies, but are revived by falling snow. Although just the fragrance of poppies will not cause slumber, this delightful tale takes advantage of the common association of poppies with eternal slumber.

Poppy Flowers in Art and Literature

The poppy flower, with its deep associations with sleep, dreams, and remembrance, has frequently appeared in art and literature throughout history. Here are some notable references:

“In Flanders Fields”: Written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae during World War I, this poem references the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers in Flanders. It’s one of the main reasons poppies are now worn to remember those who lost their lives in conflict.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”: The poem mentions “An opium eater” and visions arising from his opium-induced dreams.

Ancient texts, like Homer’s “Odyssey,” reference a potion that may have contained opium poppy derivatives, used to induce a state of calm or forgetfulness.

The poppy appears in ancient Greek artifacts, sometimes associated with the goddess Demeter or the god Hypnos, reflecting its associations with fertility and sleep.

“The Poppy Field” by Claude Monet: This Impressionist masterpiece depicts a woman and a child walking through a field of poppies.

The poppy, symbolizing sleep, death, and rebirth, often appears in works by pre-Raphaelite artists.

Interesting Facts About Poppies:

Poppy flowers are known for their vibrant colors and delicate petals, and they come with a variety of interesting attributes and historical significance:

  1. Ancient Use: For thousands of years, poppies have been used for medicinal and culinary purposes. The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is famous for its sedative properties and is the source of opium and other alkaloids such as morphine and codeine.
  2. Variety of Colors: While red poppies are the most well-known, poppy flowers can come in a wide range of colors, including pink, purple, orange, yellow, and white, each with its unique beauty.
  3. Fast Growth: Poppies are known for their ability to grow rapidly. In the right conditions, they can germinate, flower, and die in a single growing season, making them an ideal choice for adding quick color to a garden.
  4. Symbol in Mythology: In Greek and Roman mythology, poppies were associated with sleep, peace, and death due to the sedative effect of opium. The Greek god Hypnos (Sleep) and the Roman god Somnus were often depicted with poppies.
  5. Natural Pain Relief: Historically, poppies have been used for their pain-relieving properties, dating back to ancient civilizations. The use of opium derived from poppies was common in many ancient cultures.

Wrapping Up

Poppies are cheerful flowers that seem to dance in the breeze. They attract butterflies and bees, adding color and movement to the garden bed. What’s more, they have a deep symbolic meaning, and people cherish them for their connection to the past and hope for peaceful times ahead.

Further Reading: Discover a collection of the most beautiful types of red flowers.

Editorial Director | andrew@petalrepublic.com | Full Bio

Andrew is the Editorial Director at Petal Republic. He holds a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and has trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris. In amongst overseeing a global editorial team, Andrew's a passionate content creator around all things flowers, floral design, gardening, and houseplants.

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