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The Memorial Day Poppy

The inspiration for this column began at the local shopping mall. Yeah, I know it is a pretty bizarre place to get any kind of inspiration let alone gardening inspiration but sometimes you just have to go with the flow. You see sitting out front of one of the mega stores was a WWII veteran and what looked like his grandson. On the shaky card table were a bunch of red silk poppies and a can for donations.

I always put some money in the can and get a poppy to wear. It's a habit I picked up from my Dad when I was a little kid. He always bought a poppy and kept it in the visor of his truck. I didn't know why he did this exactly except that it had something to do with the war. He was a veteran of WWII and since he is no longer around to buy his poppy I do it for him.

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, 1915.


That old vet sitting at his table a few weeks before Memorial Day got me wondering about the story of the red poppy. There are many kinds of poppies but the poppy mentioned in John McCrae's poem found growing in the fields of Flanders and often referred to as Flanders Poppy is actually Papaver rhoeas more commonly called Corn Poppy. This Mediterranean native is found growing in cultivated fields all over southern Europe.

Its legend reaches back thousands of years. They have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back 3,000 years. There is a drawing of a poppy that was found in the Codex Vindobonensis which was put together for the Byzantine princess Anicia Juliana. The Codex is dated at over a thousand years. Homer mentions poppies in the Iliad, comparing the head of a dying warrior to that of a hanging poppy flower. Many of the ancient Greek and Roman gods are associated with the poppy. The god Morpheus made crowns out of the poppy flowers and gave them to those he wanted to put to sleep. Poppy flowers were used to decorate his temple.

Like all legends there is some fact mixed in with the fiction. Papaver rhoeas does not contain any opium. Its cousin Papaver somniferum is the opium poppy and is native to parts of Asia. I repeat, for all you poppy pod swipers, the Corn Poppy does not contain any opium, so leave the pretty flowers alone so other people can enjoy them. Now that that is cleared up I'll tell you what the Corn Poppy does contain and why Morpheus used it to put people to sleep.

Papaver rhoeas contains a substance, cleverly named rhoeadine. It's nonpoisonous and has been used as a mild sedative for centuries. The ancient Romans used a concoction of the poppy to ease the pains of love, I guess if you are sleeping you can't worry about love.

The Greeks have a legend that explains how the poppy came to be called the Corn Poppy. The poppy was created by the god of sleep, Somnus. You see Ceres, the goddess of grain, was having a hard time falling asleep. She was exhausted from searching for her lost daughter; still she couldn't fall asleep and had no energy to help the corn grow. Somnus cooked up a concoction and got her to take it, soon she was sleeping like a baby. Rested and relaxed Ceres could then turn her attention to the corn which began to grow. Ever since that time the people believed that poppies growing around cornfields ensure a bountiful harvest. And so was born the Corn Rose, or as we call it today the Corn Poppy.

Those are some of the ancient legends associated with the poppy. Now you are asking if I am ever going to explain the war connection. This too is an ancient connection going back to Ghengis Khan. It is said that after his annihilation of the enemy the fields were churned up and drenched in blood. Soon they were covered in pure white blooms of the poppy. During the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century the same phenomenon occurred. Churned up blood-drenched fields erupted in poppy flowers.

The most recent and enduring tradition began in WWI when John McCrae wrote the poem that appears at the top of this article. McCrae was a Canadian who enlisted to help the allies in the war. He was made Medical Officer upon landing in Europe. During a lull in the battle with the nub of a pencil he scratched on a page from his dispatch book. The poem found its way into the pages of Punch magazine. By 1918 the poem was well known throughout the allied world. Moina Michael, an American woman, wrote these lines in reply.

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

She then adopted the custom of wearing a red poppy in memory of the sacrifices of war and also as a symbol of keeping the faith.

A French women, Madam Guerin, visiting the United States, learned of the custom and took it one step further. When she returned to France she decided to hand make the red poppies and sell them to raise money for the benefit of the orphaned and destitute women and children in war torn areas of France. This tradition spread to Canada, The United States and Australia and is still followed today. The money collected from the sale of poppies goes to fund various veterans programs.

So buy a poppy, then grow some poppies. They are easy to grow and will self-sow so that each year you will have gorgeous poppies in your garden, or where ever the wind has blown the seed. Papaver rhoeas, the Corn Poppy is the ancestor of the Shirley Poppy, commonly available today in 6-pack containers and as seed. Scarlet Corn Poppies are also available as seed.

The Shirley Poppy was developed by the Reverend W. Wilks during the 1880s outside Shirley, England. The Reverend was out for a walk one day when he noticed a patch of Corn Poppies growing by the side of the lane. All of the poppies were a brilliant scarlet with a patch of black at the base of each petal, and then he spied something different. One of the flowers was trimmed in white. He marked this flower and returned later to collect the ripe seed. Next spring he planted the seed. Among the hundreds of seedlings that came up a handful had the white edging. Again he saved the seed from these mutants, that is what they were after all, and planted this seed once again saving seed from the white rimmed plants. Over and over he did this until at last he had the first pure white bloom. He was even able, with time and patience, to breed out and change the color of the splash of color at the base of the petals. This new poppy became the Shirley Poppy.

Shirley and her grandmama Corn Poppy grow about 2 feet tall, although I have seen them get even taller. The flowers are from 2 to 5 inches across and come in a variety of colors. Starting from seed is so easy, all you have to do is scatter the tiny seeds onto some prepared soil and forget them. You can do this in the fall or early spring. Fall scattered seeds tend to grow healthier and produce larger flowers than spring sown seed but either way you can't go wrong. They like our cool weather, would prefer to be in full sun and they like well drained soil. They look great in mass plantings or as part of a wildflower meadow and bloom profusely. Poppies make great cut flowers. If you sear the cut end of the stem with a match they will last longer in the vase.

Papaver rhoeas

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