A poignant trib­ute that keeps on bloom­ing

Toronto Star - - LIFE - So­nia Day The Real Dirt

Re­mem­brance Day is com­ing up and, as a gar­dener who adores pop­pies, I’ve al­ways found the story of Flan­ders Fields pro­foundly mov­ing for two rea­sons.

First, there’s that gut-wrench­ing poem by Cana­dian doc­tor John McCrae, which never fails to give me a jolt when­ever I hear it re­cited on Nov. 11.

But I’m also cap­ti­vated by the op­ti­mistic mes­sage in­her­ent in those poppy seeds — the ones that clung on in bar­ren, bat­tle-scarred Flan­ders, then sud­denly burst from the ground the spring after the First World War ended.

We no longer con­sider this phe­nom­e­non a “miracle” be­cause sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered since then that seeds of some plants can ac­tu­ally stay vi­able in the soil for hun­dreds, even thou­sands, of years.

Yet, the Flan­ders’ sur­vivors do make me think — as I of­ten do now — that Mother Na­ture will be the ul­ti­mate saviour of this planet, not us. No matter what hor­rors we in­flict on her, she will even­tu­ally pick her­self up and carry on, be­cause she al­ways has. It’s a com­fort­ing thought in our frag­ile world.

And the im­agery of a sea of scar­let pop­pies, wav­ing in the wind, had such an ef­fect on me that I’ve al­ways wanted to du­pli­cate it in my big coun­try garden.

But, alas, no way. Up here, north­west of Toronto, win­ters get too cold and windy for the seeds of the Flan­ders poppy — a tis­sue-pa­per-thin an­nual va­ri­ety called Pa­paver rhoeas — to stick around for long.

Yet, only half an hour south, they fare better. I dis­cov­ered this one swel­ter­ing day last sum­mer while vis­it­ing the fam­ily home — now a mu­seum — of John McCrae in Guelph, Ont.

“Yes, some Flan­ders pop­pies do self-seed here and come up the fol­low­ing year,” Val Har­ri­son, cu­ra­tor of the mu­seum, con­firmed. “But ev­ery spring, we also put in lots of started poppy plants, sup­plied by the city of Guelph’s green­houses, to make sure we have a good dis­play.”

And how heart­warm­ing they look. Al­though 2017 wasn’t a great year for pop­pies — not enough sun in spring and end­less rain — I spot­ted three an­nual kinds bloom­ing in the de­light­ful cot­tage garden sur­round­ing McCrae House.

Some were the au­then­tic wild P.

rhoeas of Flan­ders. But oth­ers were ei­ther its cul­ti­vated cousin, the Shirley poppy, or the “la­dy­bird” poppy, P. com­mu­ta­tum, so named be­cause it bears a strik­ing black blob at the base of each petal.

“We find that the la­dy­bird poppy grows here the best,” Har­ri­son told me.

McCrae’s birth­place, a mod­est lime­stone cot­tage built in 1858, es­caped the chop­ping block dur­ing the tear-it-all-down 1960s, when cities ev­ery­where were raz­ing any­thing old. It sur­vived thanks to the stren­u­ous ef­forts of a group of con­cerned cit­i­zens — a vic­tory that Har­ri­son was quick to ap­plaud dur­ing my visit.

“McCrae was a son of Guelph, after all. There was no way his home should be torn down,” she said. “But it nearly was.”

Al­though now of­fi­cially op­er­ated by the city of Guelph, it’s still kept go­ing by ded­i­cated vol­un­teers. They plant the pop­pies and other flow­ers, look after the McCrae me­mora­bilia dis­played in­side the house and serve af­ter­noon tea in the back­yard all sum­mer.

They also hold a fundrais­ing drive In Flan­ders Fields. on the first Satur­day of ev­ery May, when pack­ets of poppy seeds do­nated by var­i­ous seed com­pa­nies are on sale. If you get the chance, go buy some. Scat­ter that seed in your own garden, then re­turn at the end of June to see the panoply of pop­pies bloom­ing at McCrae House.

They’re a poignant trib­ute to an elo­quent Cana­dian and a part of our his­tory that should be re­mem­bered by all of us. Whoops! The Soil Con­ser­va­tion Coun­cil of Coun­cil didn’t dream up the Soil Your Undies test, as I wrote in my col­umn last week. It orig­i­nated with the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture, then was tried by the On­tario Min­is­ter of Agri­cul­ture. The In­no­va­tive Farm­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion of On­tario coined the catchy ti­tle. A Star reader, Dave Gowan, also pointed out that you can bury a pair of un­der­pants now. Just do it be­fore the ground freezes, then wait un­til spring to dig them up. so­ni­a­day.com

SO­NIA DAY PHO­TOS

Vol­un­teer Val Har­ri­son with some of the pop­pies that were planted in front of the Guelph birth­place of John McCrae, author of

Pa­paver rhoeas are the same kind of poppy that sprang to life in bat­tle-scarred Flan­ders the spring after the First World War ended.

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