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The Corn Poppy in Italy
There can be few people who are unable to recall having seen a field of bright, blood-red poppies exploding en masse in May or the blazing impressionist paintings of Claude Monet.. Across the globe, from Egypt to North America, cultivated fields suddenly become dazzling swathes of an intense blood-red- in an instant and as if by magic!
The variety of Papavero (poppy) that has become known as the 'Tuscan poppy', or 'Corn poppy' probably originated in North Africa / Egypt, where early agricultural practices began favoring this stunning plant. Papaver rhoeas is an annual plant whose survival is now dependant upon the rhythms and cultivations necessary for grain cultivation.Growing on disturbed soil and seeding itself profusely during its growing season, the poppy has found a perfect harmony with the agricultural practices for the past 3,000 years or so and remains of the plant have even been discovered in Egyptian tombs.
For any normal 'weed-plant' the cultivation of the soil spells disaster but for the poppy it enhances its survival chances, having made it a permanent fixture in our fields since agriculture began. A sun-lover, it grows in almost any soil but favors heavy alkaline soils- making Tuscany the ideal place for such a plant, given the extensive grain cultivation and thick clay soil.
In fact the fields of poppies in the Tuscan landscape have become a very strong visual symbol, almost synonymous with Tuscan and all things Tuscan. The strong Tuscan sunshine favors the growth of this plant and helps highlight the ferocity of this the very brightest of reds in the wild-flower range. Refracting with green and complimented when set against yellow - this plant tends to propel its vivacious color from the backdrop of Tuscany's deep, lush greens of the young wheat fields.
Then, as the summer draws on, the remaining swathes of poppies sit harmoniously with the drying grass and ripening grain in early June. Swaying in the cool breezes of early spring the corn poppy displays its splendor in the moment when it is most required (around the beginning of May) a moment when most of us are longing for the summer to begin...
An ancient Greek legend explains, rather romantically, how the poppy adopted the name 'Corn' Poppy. According to myth the poppy was created by the Greek God of sleep, Somnus- in a period when Ceres, the goddess of grain, was apparently having trouble sleeping and was also searching desperately for her lost daughter – therefore she clearly lacked the energy to make the corn to grow. Somnus, realizing the gravity of the situation, allegedly quickly brewed a concoction from the poppy and offered it to Ceres and, so legend has it... "Ceres was soon sleeping like a baby again!" and soon felt rested and relaxed in no time!
Ceres suddenly found the energy and turned her attention once again to the corn fields which miraculously began to grow well. The poppy's appearance along field margins has stood as a strong symbol to the Greeks ever since- and its presence ensures abundant harvests in the fields.
This plant is more than a mere invader of our wheat fields and, aside from its breathtaking flower-spectacle, it offer's we humans with much more! This elusive plant does in fact have many medicinal properties. The Romans used the plant to soothe away the "Aches of love" by drinking a sedative tea which would have released the substance Morpheus – a delicate opiate present in the plant thus aiding insomnia and stress - relief...
The petals of the Tuscan poppy contain substances that aid insomnia and Papaver Rhoeas is very slightly narcotic. The chief constituent of the fresh petals is the red coloring matter, which consists of Rhoeadic and Papaveric acids. This color is much darkened by several alkalis present in the plant and all parts of the plant contain the crystalline non-poisonous alkaloid Rhoeadine. The amount of active ingredients is of a minimum and its exact quantity is unclear and there is still great controversy regarding the presence of another powerful sedative... Morphine. It has, as yet, not been determined whether Meconic acid, which is present in opium, is also an active constituent of Papaver Rhoeas.
The seed of the corn poppy has been used for centuries for the flavoring of bread and deserts and its leaves can be used in salads/garnishes and can even be boiled and served rather like spinach. The poppy's intrinsic, if not somewhat menacing relationship with man could, at the very least, earn this plant some respect for its survival tactics, and the dazzling appearance of this humble yet stunning beauty in a season that so longs for hot color can only instill admiration in its onlooker. However this 'simple' annual, who's seed can wait patiently for up to 40 years or more before germinating, who has evaded all of man's attempts to eradicate it over the past 3,000 years and who still has the audacity to choose, very precisely, in which field it would prefer to grow in... remains, and will probably always remain- a beautiful, though as yet, unsolved, natural mystery!
For a professional consultation on the creation of an ecological, Tuscan-style poppy field with other indigenous, Tuscan wild-flowers, using the ecoLogica system: contact Jonathan
Scroll down for examples of recent wild-flower projects...