What’s in a flower? A lot, when it’s a poppy
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?
To chat with local gardeners, share tips, pics, or discuss poppies, see Grand Gardeners on Facebook.