As I start to write this the Remembrance Ceremony at the Cenotaph, in London has only just finished and it got me thinking about the symbolism of the red poppy. Many of you will, I’m sure, know about the origin of red poppy and its association with World War One via the poem written by Major John McCrae (30 November 1872 — 28 January 1918) ‘In Flanders Fields’. It is believed that the inspiration for this poem came as a result of the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, on the 2nd May 1915, who died as a result of receiving a direct hit from a German 8 inch artillery shell. I’ve reproduced the poem in full below.
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.
However, linking the symbolism of the poppy with raising
money for veterans came about from two ‘Poppy Ladies’ one an American, Moina Michael
(1869 – 1944) and the other a French lady Anna Guérin (?).
Moina Michael, a well-healed lady from Georgia and was on duty at a YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ headquarters in New York on 9th of November 1918, while the 25th conference of YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ was taking place. However, it was also a gathering place where U.S. Servicemen about to depart for Europe would say their ‘Goodbyes’ to family and friends prior to leaving.
While she was on duty a serviceman left a copy of the ‘Ladies Home Journal’ on her desk and when she browsed through it came across the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. She was so moved by this poem she wrote a response ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’ which is reproduced in full below.
Oh! You who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
Three delegates attending the conference were so touched by the effort she had made to brighten the office with flowers bought at her own expense they gave her a cheque of $10. She thanked them and stated she would buy red poppies with the money. Later that day she returned with 25 red silk poppies and after keeping one for herself sold the rest to the delegates. This is regarded as the first sale of red poppies in memory of those who fell during the First World War.
However, it was the French ‘Poppy Lady’ Anna Guérin (seen on the right) who brought the
poppy to England. She wanted to use the poppy as a means to raise money for the children of the men that had died. On the 11th of November 1921 she met Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, founder and President of The British Legion and persuaded him to adopt the red poppy as a symbol for the British Legion. This then led to the setting up of a poppy factory in Richmond. Some years later, Countess Haig, Earl Douglas’ wife, set up a factory in 1926 in Edinburgh, the city where he was born.
The four petal common poppy or Papaver rhoeas, seen below gets its name from the Latin Pappa meaning food or milk and rhoeas from the Greek for red. It is of Mediterranean origin and it’s thought to have spread through Europe via grain shipments. It is an annual growing to about 60cm or 2ft and seems to do well in dry, poor soil conditions such as those found at the roadside or on wasteland. Each plant can produce over 60,000 seeds which means it can quickly colonise a new area. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew state that the seed is very durable and can lie dormant for over 80 years.
The poppy if eaten in large quantities by sheep or cattle it can prove fatal but is not poisonous to humans. Often used in the past to cure a number of ailments from earache to toothache. An infusion of petals was traditionally taken to aid digestion, or relieve insomnia as well as coughs.
At one time this plant was in decline as a result of intensive agricultural practices. However, since the ‘set-aside’ programme came into effect (where the farmer leaves a certain amount of land fallow each year) the poppy has a made a resurgence.
If you wish to have a drift of naturalised colour in your garden to create a meadow affect then seeds can be sown in either in March to May or September to October. Flowering in either August to September or May to July depending on when the seeds were sown. Remember these plants do not like rich soil and prefer poor soils so don’t add any fertiliser.