When Major John McCrae, a Canadian military doctor, penned his famous poem shortly after conducting the burial service for a friend killed during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, little did he know that the poem – and the poppies mentioned in the poem – would become such iconic symbols of the war years. Every November we see innumerable pictures of the lovely blood-red poppies with their contrasting dark centres, hear the words to the poem, “In Flanders Fields,” spoken or sung in reverence, and of course buy poppies from the Canadian Legion that conducts its well-known poppy drive to ensure that we remember the sacrifices of men and women in our armed forces. The poppy has become the symbol of remembrance in North America and in much of Europe and wreaths of poppies are laid at Remembrance services.
The poppy of Flanders Fields is actually the Shirley poppy, but in Europe it is often referred to as the corn poppy. The annual Shirley poppy, “Papaver rhoeas,” has a coarse rosette of foliage from which emerge stiff stems about 60 cm tall bearing bright-red poppies with purple-black centres. Sometimes the poppies are pink or white but usually they are red. They like sandy soil and are naturalized in Europe where they grow profusely wherever the soil is disturbed – hence their habit of growing in cemeteries. Shirley poppies seed prolifically and once you plant them in your garden you will always have them.
The petals of Shirley poppies are like satin and the individual petals flutter in the slightest breeze while the flowers themselves nod their heads in the wind. There are semi-double and double forms, but the traditional “Flanders Fields” poppy is the single variety. Poppies are diffi cult flowers to use as cut flowers. The stems must be seared before they are immersed in water and even then some blooms may wilt. Their vase life is short, but a vase of red Shirley poppies is absolutely beautiful and well worth the effort it takes to cut and condition them. That such a delicate flower has come to represent the tough and courageous women and men of the armed forces is ironic, although perhaps not, as the life of a soldier can be just as fleeting and short lived as that of the poppy bloom.
Over the years plant hybridizers have developed a wonderful array of poppy varieties: huge lavender ones, immense ruby-red doubles, and even pure-white single poppies. Many of these poppies are related to the opium poppies that many used to grow – and some still do – for the seeds to use in baking. More and more gardeners are including poppies in their flower borders because of their unusually beautiful blooms. They are often planted behind other plants which can serve as a screen because poppy foliage becomes rather unsightly after they have finished blooming.
The bright-red “Flanders Fields” poppy, however, remains a favourite and is seen in many a rural garden year after year as some of the volunteer seedlings are allowed to develop and bloom. Even in the summertime, during the poppy’s blooming season, it is almost impossible to look at a clump of red Shirley poppies without remembering their symbolic significance, even if it is July, and not November 11.