Next time you tuck into a poppy seed cake, it’s worth considering the symbolism associated with the vibrant little flower. After all, it delivers us a delightful textural ingredient. Often we associate it with sleep, peace, and death. But today, we take a slight detour from the usual dessert discourse. Instead we’ll consider the underlying reasons for the poppy flower symbolism.
We just observed Remembrance Day, sometimes referred to as Poppy Day, so it’s obvious for us to start here. Being a part of the Commonwealth with family members who fought in WWI, we know this day to be the one most heavily associated with the flower. Everywhere we turn we see red remembrance poppies metaphorically bloom around us. But how did it all begin? It all started with a 1915 poem, by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, entitled, In Flanders Fields. The brutality that took place in Western Europe where the destruction tore up the landscape inspired the poetic work. The destruction inadvertently allowed bright poppies to eventually appear.
In 1918, University of Georgia Professor and YWCA volunteer, Moina Michael, read McCrae’s poem. She felt inspired to write her own poem, We Shall Keep the Faith, before going on to sew and sell red silk poppies to promote and raise funds for all of the veterans. Another, arguably more influential, woman we associate with remembrance poppies was the French-born Anna Guérin. She campaigned internationally to ensure the poppy’s place among the Commonwealth and other allied countries.
Fittingly, we also use the poppy flower to represent eternal sleep. We see multiple examples within Greek mythology beginning with Morpheus, the god of dreams, and Hypnos, the god of sleep. Incidentally, Hypnos had a twin brother, Thanatos, the god of death. He often adorned himself with a poppy crown. Some also say that Demeter, the Greek goddess of harvest and agriculture, actually created the poppy. After the loss of her daughter, Persephone (also Kore), she used the poppy so that she herself may be able to sleep. For this reason, many often depict her with poppy seeds and refer to her as the poppy goddess.
From here we can move on to the extraction of opium from poppies. This is the precursor to opiates such as morphine, heroin, and codeine. The edible seeds found in a poppy seed cake do have the potential to contain traces of opiate residue. However, the amounts in baked goods would be so minimal that a person would not experience morphine-like effects. According to the NZ Drug Foundation though, if your workplace does conduct drug testing, it is suggested to avoid consuming any food with poppy seeds. It can still produce positive results.
Don’t let this stop you from enjoying desserts like poppy seed cake. Particularly when you learn that we can use the seed extensively in various other sweet treats. These can include buns and pastries from the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, and Turkey to name a few.