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How the Poppy Became the Symbol of Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day

20161111aIn 1915, a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, wrote a poem, In Flanders Fields, following the funeral of a friend who died during the Second Battle of Ypres. He wrote it directly on the battlefield, sitting in the back of an ambulance in Belgium. Here it is:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae: 1872-1918

This poem had so much impact that it became one of the most popular war poems of all time and still remains associated with Remembrance Day (Commonwealth countries) and Veteran’s Day (USA), held on November 11. The date was chosen to recall the signing of the 1918 Armistice that ended the First World War. Even today, ceremonies of remembrance are held in many countries that include two minutes of silence at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month, when the armistice became effective. People of the time thought the signing of the 1918 Armistice had put an end to war forever (the First World War was known as “the war to end all wars”): they would be proved very wrong.

Note that John McCrae never returned from the war. He died of pneumonia January 28, 1918 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France.

The Flanders Poppy

Field of corn poppies in full bloom.

The poppy that has come to be known as the Flanders poppy in some circles, but more currently corn poppy (the name I’ll be using) or common poppy (Papaver rhoeas, syn. P. commutatum), is a common annual flower in Eurasia where it grows in disturbed soils, especially farmers’ fields, where it is considered a weed.

At Ypres in 1915, the “disturbed soil” in question was that covering the fresh graves of the Allied War dead. Hundreds of white crosses popping out of a field of blood red poppies certainly must have created a magical effect. Today, though, the Ypres war cemetery is more green than red, dominated by a grass lawn so carefully maintained that poppies no longer grow there.

20161111cIt was American professor and humanitarian Moina Michael who first had the idea of using the poppy as a symbol of remembrance for veterans, an idea that was adopted in 1920 in the United States and, following that, by veterans’ groups in most countries of the Commonwealth. In many countries, plastic poppy lapel pins are sold annually as a fund raiser by veteran’s associations a few weeks before November 11th.

As a gardener, I find it odd that the floral symbol of Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day doesn’t bloom on November 11th, but rather months earlier, in late spring and early to mid summer. It would take a lot of coaxing to get one to bloom off season like that. Besides, poppy flowers are fragile and pinning one to a lapel would be difficult. That’s why artificial poppies are used for that purpose.

How to Grow Corn Poppies

In Europe, the corn poppy is no longer the common weed it once was. Modern farming methods, including the use of herbicides, have meant this former denizen of farm fields has almost disappeared in many areas. But we can still easily grow it as an annual flower in our gardens.

Double Shirley poppies were derived from the wild corn poppy.

Cultivated corn poppies sometimes have red shades of their wild ancestor, P. rhoeas, but many, often called Shirley poppies because they were developed by the Reverend William Wilks in the parish of Shirley in England, now also come also in pink, salmon, white, bicolor and even mouse gray, with single, semi-double or double flowers. Their height varies depending on the strain and ranges from 10 to 30 inches (25 cm to 75 cm). The gray green leaves are hairy and deeply cut, much like fern fronds. The flowers, borne on an erect hairy stem, are ruffled with a texture like crepe paper and can be 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7,5 cm) in diameter.

The corn poppy is a very fast growing annual, often found in wildflower mixtures because of its ease of cultivation and ability to flower just a few weeks from sowing, much faster than most annuals. However, you’ll almost never find trays of corn poppies in garden centers, because they don’t transplant well. So if you want to try growing your own corn poppies, you pretty much have to start them from seed, sowing them where you want them to grow. Fortunately seeds (usually labeled Shirley poppies or Flanders poppies) are widely available: you’ll find them in just about every seed catalog that handles annuals.

‘Ladybird’ is a selection of corn poppy with brighter red flowers and more distinct black spots, resembling a ladybird.

The corn poppy is a cool season annual: it is best sown in late fall or early spring, as it germinates best when temperatures are cool. Sow it in a sunny location in just about any well-drained soil. In hot summer regions, sow a second crop in early June, as the plants of the first generation tend to peter out quite quickly. Loosen the soil surface before you sow (remember that the poppy positively thrives in disturbed soil!) and sow the fine seed without covering it. Just press down lightly and water. Don’t go overboard with thinning, either: this is one annual that looks best when the plants are allowed to mingle together.

Usually, no maintenance is required: corn poppies will even take drought without much complaint. To prolong flowering, however, you might want to deadhead (remove the faded flowers)… or you could simply let the plant live out its normal life and go to seed, because its pepperpotlike seed capsules are not unattractive.

The plant will self-sow in open spaces but quickly disappears from mulched soil, and it is therefore easy to control.

Not the Same as Opium Poppy

Opium poppy

Many gardeners confuse corn poppy with the other common annual poppy, Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, but the latter is a much bigger plant with huge flowers. A quick look at the leaves is all you need to tell the two apart. The leaves of opium poppy are deeply incised, but certainly not fernlike, contrary to those of the corn poppy. Plus, they are distinctly bluish in color, far from the gray green of corn poppy leaves.

From an unappreciated farm weed to a symbol of thanks to veterans to an attractive garden flower, the corn flower has come a long way. And it’s a plant to remember on this day of remembrance!20161111a

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