What’s in a flower? A lot, when it’s a poppy

Waterloo Region Record - - Arts & Life - DAVID HOB­SON David Hob­son gar­dens in Water­loo and is happy to an­swer gar­den ques­tions, prefer­ably by email: gar­den@gto.net. Reach him by mail c/o In the Gar­den, The Record, 160 King St. E., Kitch­ener, Ont. N2G 4E5

I’ve pho­tographed a lot of flow­ers and gar­dens, as many peo­ple do. We print them to hang on our walls or use them as screen savers on our phones and com­put­ers. We email them to friends and we post and share on­line — an un­be­liev­able cou­ple of bil­lion each day. This past week or so, many of those posted have been im­ages of that hugely emo­tive red petalled flower, the re­mem­brance poppy.

Of the nu­mer­ous species of poppy, as many as a hun­dred, this par­tic­u­lar one is Pa­paver rhoeas, also known as the corn poppy, field poppy and the Flan­ders poppy. Its ap­pear­ance there dur­ing the First World War in­spired the poem writ­ten by Lieu­tenant-Colonel John McCrae.

The poem was ini­tially pro­moted in 1918 by Moina Michael, an Amer­i­can pro­fes­sor and hu­man­i­tar­ian who made silk pop­pies as a sym­bol of re­mem­brance for Amer­i­can sol­diers killed in that war. It was in­tro­duced to Eng­land by a French woman, Anna Guérin, where it was sub­se­quently adopted by mil­i­tary vet­er­ans’ groups. Then, in 1921, Madame Guérin vis­ited Canada to fur­ther pro­mote the poppy as a sym­bol of re­mem­brance, re­turn­ing it full cir­cle to McRae’s home­land.

But what of this hum­ble flower? We can grow th­ese pop­pies in our gar­dens, although they look won­der­ful when seen grow­ing wild in end­less drifts, es­pe­cially so in Eu­rope, where the species likely orig­i­nated. There it was called red weed by farm­ers be­cause of its propen­sity to form a seed bank in soil, ly­ing dor­mant for years only to sprout forth in pro­fu­sion when con­di­tions are right.

This would typ­i­cally hap­pen af­ter a field had been freshly plowed or, sadly, af­ter the ground had been shelled into sub­mis­sion, such as oc­curred in Eu­rope dur­ing the First World War. On cul­ti­vated land, a blan­ket of red would ap­pear in late spring or early sum­mer, in time to be­come well es­tab­lished ahead of the de­sired crops.

Although it was the bane of old-world farm­ers, the flower re­deemed it­self slightly by re­veal­ing the pres­ence of rich soil through its pref­er­ence for fer­tile ground. Those drifts, how­ever, are less com­mon now since the ad­vent of in­dus­trial agri­cul­ture and the wide­spread use of her­bi­cides.

One colony I do know of be­came es­tab­lished in a patch of meadow near the Harper Li­brary on Fischer-Hall­man Road in Water­loo. It would be nice to see more through­out the re­gion, an early re­minder in late spring or early sum­mer of the flower’s sig­nif­i­cance. There’s no rea­son they can’t be planted in our own gar­dens, eas­ily grown by scat­ter­ing seed in spring. We of­ten do have pop­pies in our gar­dens, per­haps not the red one but the many cul­ti­vars known as Shirley pop­pies. Th­ese are bred from that orig­i­nal, avail­able now in yel­lows, pinks, or­ange and bi­colour — and in dif­fer­ent forms: sin­gles, dou­bles, semi dou­bles, pe­ony and pi­co­tee. They are beau­ti­ful ad­di­tions to a gar­den, but be­cause of the colour and form, they don’t have the same emo­tional im­pact.

The red ones I seeded in my own gar­den years ago do still ap­pear at ran­dom, a re­minder for me of a grand­fa­ther I never knew who was lost to the First World War. I also have a favourite im­age of a red poppy. It’s one I cap­tured while on a visit to the artist Claude Monet’s gar­den in Giverny, France. Long be­fore pho­tog­ra­phy be­came pop­u­lar, Monet painted pop­pies in a fa­mous piece called “Poppy Field.” The soli­tary flower I cap­tured wasn’t in his gar­den but stood alone in an end­less field of wheat. It was only later that, af­ter hav­ing seen it grow­ing there, in Nor­mandy, I re­al­ized that it too might well have had kin that had wit­nessed the hor­rors of war. What’s in a flower?

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To chat with lo­cal gar­den­ers, share tips, pics, or dis­cuss pop­pies, see Grand Gar­den­ers on Face­book.

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