Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: The Poppy

Posted on by royvickery |

2014-05-03 16.37.03Nicholas J. Saunders, The Poppy: A History of Conflict, Loss, Remembrance & Redemption, London: Oneworld Publications, pbk ed., 2014.

This book, described as ‘the definitive history of an ever-enduring icon’, traces the place of the common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and opium poppy (P. somniferum) in human culture from ancient times to the present. Saunders suggests that the red poppy produced by the British Legion for sale before Remembrance Sunday each year is derived from the common poppy and the opium poppy, products from the latter being used to deaden the pain of injured service-men and the grief of their families.  I’m not convinced that this is so, but it enables him to include an interesting chapter on the recent increase in the production of opium in Afghanistan.

The botany is somewhat insecure in places, but on the whole the book reads well.  An impressive list of references is included, but this reveals evidence that the book was perhaps over hastily compiled, presumably to catch the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.  The first end-note I wanted to check related to the statement that poppies grew on the battlefields of Waterloo, the end-note refers the reader to ‘Thisteleton, T.H. 1889: 372’.  The lists of references gives ‘Thiseleton-Dyer, T.F. (1889) The Folk-lore of Plants …’  The author’s name is, in fact, T.F. Thiselton Dyer, and the text of his book consists of 319 pages (Waterloo poppies are mentioned on p.15).  I was interested in the statement that the Victorian historian Thomas Arnold ‘branded opium as a sin’ (can a substance be a sin?  surely only actions, and perhaps thoughts, can be considered as such), but there is no end-note relating to this.  There are similar problems when trying to trace other information.

In addition to the British Legion’s red poppy, the Peace Pledge Union’s white poppy, a black poppy produced to ‘symbolise the problems of world poverty’ in 2001, and the purple poppy produced by Animal Aid to commemorate the suffering of animals in war, are also discussed.  The black poppy produced in the 1990s to commemorate the black and Asian servicemen injured or killed in wars is not mentioned.  Neither is Norfolk’s Poppyland, promoted (and probably created) by the writer Clement Scott in 1883 with souvenirs being produced until the 1930s before being largely forgotten until a revival of interest marking the centenary of Scott’s initial publication.  Since Scott associated the common poppy with sleep and death his work could usefully support Saunder’s argument that both it and the opium poppy both had a role in the production of the British Legion’s poppy.

Despite the blurb which claims that the poppy is an ‘ever-enduring icon’, it seems that in the first two countries where it was most actively promoted it is now almost forgotten.  In the U.S.A. it is little worn, and in France it has been replaced by the cornflower (Centaurea cyanus).

The book’s illustrations are disappointing.  It would be good to have more (and larger) illustrations of ancient artefacts which are believed to depict poppies, so that readers could form their own opinions on these, and more illustrations of poppy wreaths, etc.

Saunder’s work is easy and enjoyable to read, but could have been much better.

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