The Black Poppy
A tall and fine plant but not so elegant as the former [the White Poppy]. It is a yard high. The stalk is round, upright and firm, and smooth, and toward the top divides into some branches. The leaves are long and broad, of a bluish green colour, and deeply and irregularly cut in at the edges. The flowers are large and single. They are a dead purple colour, with a black bottom. The head or seed-vessels are round, and of the bigness of a walnut. The seed is black.
(The Family Herbal, or an Account of all the English Plants, which are remarkable for their Virtues, Sir John Hill, M.D, 1812)
For centuries cottage gardens included Red Poppies. They were undoubtedly grown for their beauty but this meant that they would also be on-hand for the making of domestic remedies. Hill’s Herbal gives one example. A syrup could be made by pouring boiling water onto the plucked flowers, just as much as will wet them. After “a night’s standing” the water to be strained off, twice the weight of sugar added and the liquid boiled. The result is “the famous syrup of red poppies” which “gently promotes sleep.”
Black Poppies were also grown alongside the Red. They have no equivalent in the wild so were an ornamental variety. We know that they were cultivated since at least the 1600s, appearing in Culpeper’s Herbal of 1653, and it is still possible to buy the Black Poppy as a ‘heritage’ plant today. This ornamental poppy was also used by in home remedies. Robinson’s New Family Herbal of 1868 describes how a fomentation to soothe inflammations and pain could be made from poppies, “mostly of home growth”. This was done by breaking up the heads and boiling them. A flannel could then be dipped into the water (called a decoction), wrung out, applied to the affected area and renewed as it begun to cool. The decoction could also be drunk, in moderation, to relieve pain and promote sleep.
There are variations on this method for making a fomentation. Three years ago I interviewed a 98 year old woman who had a tooth abscess as a child. Her mother went to a chemist and purchased a poppy head, softened it with boiling water, and bound it to the child’s inflamed cheek. Apparently she was immediately relieved of the pain. The same method is described almost word for word in a 13th manuscript in the library of the Wellcome Collection.
Culpeper gives other uses for the Black Poppy in particular. He tells the reader that the flowers are of a gentle sudorific nature. This meant that they induced sweating, a treatment believed to be effectual in treating many conditions. He also claimed that it was “particularly good” for treating pleurisies and quinces. However, this claim was called into question by Sir John Hills who wrote “It is greatly recommended in pleurisies and fevers, but this is upon no good foundation. It is very wrong to depend upon such medicines: it prevents having recourse to better.”
Culpeper gives one more use of the Black Poppy. He writes that “the red surfeit-water’ is a tincture of the flower. This tincture was made by steeping the flower in wine and was given as a medicinal drink for sufferers of indigestion.
It will come as no surprise that this blog has been posted to coincide with Remembrance Day. Last Sunday I had another reason to link poppies with the colour black. A young man was ‘selling’ (for donation) Royal British Legion poppies outside Greenwich station. In his tray, alongside the usual poppies, were circular metallic badges threaded onto a black cord bracelet. The design was a red poppy on a black background. When I asked why the colour black was used he told me that it was in commemoration of the anniversary of the end of the Battle of Passchendaele, 10 November 1917. This battle epitomised the worst of the First World War with men and horses drowning in mud and wave after wave of young men sent to their death for the eventual gain, after 3 months of fighting, of just 5 miles of ground.
Hill, John (Sir). 1812. The Family Herbal. Bungay.
Robinson, M. 1868. The New Family Herbal & Botanic Physician. London & Wakefield.
Culpeper, N.. 1653. The English Physician Enlarged. London.
MacKinney, L.C.. 1965. Medical Illustrations in Medieval Manuscripts. London.
Julie Wakefield began specialising in herbalism at the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. As a staff member at the Old Operating Theatre she delivers talks on past uses of plants both in the Herb Garret and Southwark Cathedral.