A poignant tribute that keeps on blooming
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
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.