The poppy originally linked to Armistice Day, November 11, now called Veterans Day, has seen its popularity as a symbol of solemn remembrance reinvigorated in the First World War landscape.
Friday, May 27 is National Poppy Day in the United States. The American Legion has asked Congress to designate the Friday before Memorial Day as National Poppy Day to honor fallen veterans, serving men/women and their families. National Poppy Day has been an active program since 1924 and the American Legion continues to distribute poppies on this day to remember the many sacrifices made by past and present service members and their families.
As described in the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, poppies have indeed grown en masse in northern France and Belgian Flanders. Flanders Fields was a major theater of battle on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918. To put the enormity into perspective; one million soldiers from over fifty countries were wounded, missing or killed in action / buried there. The continuous bombardments of the First World War destroyed entire towns and villages. Poppies sprung up from the disturbed soil and rubble, likely due to lime in the fragmented masonry that served as fertilizer and a by-product of nitrogen from explosives.
The symbolism of the poppy goes back in history long before the First and Second World Wars. Homer in The Iliad compares the “full poppy, covered with rain, falling to the ground” to the death of a Trojan prince. Poppies were also depicted as decoration on jewelry and furniture found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Until recently, I believed that here in the United States poppies could only be grown by propagating commercial seeds. I was thrilled to learn that there are what I call “wild poppies” right here in Lunenburg County. Papaver rhoes and Papaver dubium. The two listed below are not native to the United States and are technically not wildflowers in the United States. They have both been introduced by seed and reseeded opportunistically when conditions are optimal.
Papaver rhoes, which is red in color with a black spot at the base of the flower, is also known as the common poppy, poppy, corn rose, field poppy, red poppy and Flanders poppy. It is an annual herbaceous species often found in agricultural fields before herbicides were widely used. It is widely known as an agricultural weed by the Commonwealth of Nations. This poppy is grown in gardens and is frequently found in “wildflower mix” seed packets.
Papaver dubium, light red to orange in color usually without a black spot at the base of the flower, is also known as the long-headed blind-eyed poppy. Annual species that prefers sandy and slightly calcareous soils. It is widespread throughout Europe and is now being introduced in the United States and elsewhere.
If you look carefully at the right time of year, both varieties can be found in agricultural areas along farmers’ fields and roadside ditches. My friend Lisa proved to me last week that it’s true!
The beautiful poppy has a long and rich history. Please wear a red poppy on Friday, May 27 in remembrance of the dead and hope for a peaceful future.
Dawn Conrad is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, herb enthusiast, writer, and fiber artist. She can be contacted at [email protected]