Birthflower for August: the Poignant Poppy and a Poppyseed Bun...

poppy flowers illustration water colour
walnut poppyseed yeast bun recipe

 The brilliantly coloured poppy flower, the birthflower for August, is a clever little thing.

Not only does it cheer with its happily nodding heads of crimson, scarlet, orange, pink and yellow, but it also has an important role in medical and culinary fields, because it provides poppyseeds for cooking, as well as opium.

Ornamental poppies used to be commonly grown in cottage style gardens, their clear bright tones providing a sunny burst of colour.

With the fashion for "architectural plants" of recent years, these happy little fellows have fallen from favour.

I think it is high time we bring them back into fashion in the garden!

sarah winward poppies

Species include the Meconopsis (Himalayan & Welsh poppy) and the Papaver (Oriental, Opium, Iceland &  Corn poppy).

Mostly associated with the colour red, poppies come in many other tones, like these delicate pink Papaver Orientale ones.


...and even in white, in the form of the flower from the spectacular California Tree Poppy.


But it is perhaps the blood red of the Flanders poppy, Papaver Rhoeas, which first springs to mind when thinking of these little flowers.

The red poppy has long been a symbol of remembrance, stretching back to Ancient Greek and Roman days, when it was used as an offering to the newly dead to wish them peaceful eternal sleep.

(It was used to portray this endless sleep in the Wizard of Oz, tempting the questing foursome with its powerful, magical sleeping qualities, in the field of poppies scene.)

The sleep inducing, as well as pain-killing, properties of opium placed the crops in much demand, especially during the 19th century when opiate use became quite common place amongst fine European society, culminating in the Opium Wars and the closing of Western trade with China in the mid 1800s.

alice in wonderland caterpiller

Speaking of opium and the Victorian age, we cannot forget the hookah smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, in the wonderful illustration by Sir John Tenniel in 1865...

But in 1915, in the midst of the Great War, the meaning of poppies would change, when a young Canadian soldier & surgeon wrote the poignant poem, "In Flanders Fields".

The association of the common red poppy with soldier's sacrifice and death was itself immortalised through his considered, wise words ...

in flanders fields poppy poem

I cannot read these lines, today or on any memorial day, without tearing up.

And the irony of the symbolism of the poppy in this poem, when one of its other great uses is as a painkiller, is not lost upon the reader either.

As the source of opium, Papaver Somniferum gives us morphine and codeine, while the plant's seeds are used for both poppyseed oil and poppyseeds for cooking.

(Neither the oil nor the seeds used for culinary purposes have residual opiates left in them.)


Opium is the latex extracted from the seed pods while they are still green.

When allowed to ripen, the seed pods produce the familiar black poppyseeds used as a topping on breads, as well as an ingredient in central European cuisine, like the delicious rolled poppy seed bun of Poland, the makoweiec.

rolled poppyseed and walnut bun recipe

Inspired by this delectable treat of my childhood, which my Polish grandfather used to buy from the Central Market in Adelaide, (we would eat it with endless cups of sweet, milky tea on their dairy farm in the school holidays, as an early breakfast after milking at 5 am), I threw some ingredients together to make a more simplified version of the traditional makowiec.

It's lighter on the poppy seeds, heavier on the walnuts, and brings in more sweet spices and the smoothness of tahini in the filling, but the general gyst is the same: it's a rolled sweetened dough, spread with spiced, sweetened poppy seeds and rolled up to form a giant escargot bun.

rolling out dough for walnut poppyseed buns

I prefer the poppy seeds left whole, rather than ground as is traditional. Having super-fresh poppyseeds makes all the difference.

walnut and poppyseed bun recipe
sarah winward icelandic poppies

So if you were born in this month of August, your birthflower happens to be one of the most important crops in human history.

Used as a medicine as far back as the Ancient Sumerians, for trade between East and West culminating in the Opium Wars of the early 19th century, the source of many narcotics, both for medical and dependent use, a valuable food commodity, as a nourishing high protein seed, a symbol which represents the sacrifice of fallen soldiers and lastly as a glorious flower which gives much pleasure from its beauty.

It's a complex flower with a complex history!

images: poppyseed bun blue fruit // august birthflower montage sources here // water colour painting // red poppy flowers // botanical drawing opium poppy // vase of icelandic poppies sarah winward //  all other flowers lambleys nursery // alice in wonderland