Poppy: A Remembrance of Fallen Heroes

By Rosalie Laune:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below

We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

This poem was written in 1915 by Major John McCrae, a physician serving in a Canadian artillery unit during World War I. It is believed he wrote it after conducting a burial service for a young Canadian artillery officer who was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium.

The poem inspired Monia Michael who is credited with immortalizing the poppy as one of the most recognized memorial symbols honoring soldiers killed in combat. A century later it still symbolizes Memorial Day. 

A professor at the University of Georgia when the U.S. entered World War I, she took a leave of absence from the University and volunteered to assist at a training headquarters for overseas YWCA workers. 

After reading Crae’s poem she vowed to always wear a red poppy to honor those who served in the war. After the war, she returned to the University of Georgia and taught a class of disabled servicemen. To provide financial and occupational support for them she pursued the idea of selling silk poppies for that purpose.

In 1921, as a result of her efforts, the poppy was adopted as a symbol of remembrance for war veterans by the American Legion Auxiliary. Known as the "Poppy Lady" for her humanitarian efforts, Michael received numerous awards during her lifetime. In 1948, four years after her death, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring her life’s achievement. In 1969, the Georgia General Assembly named a section of U.S. Highway 78 the Moina Michael Highway.

The poppy referred to by McCrae is known today as the Corn poppy or Flanders.  It is a common flower native to Europe that grew wild including in the cemeteries where fallen soldiers of World War I were buried. It is from this poppy that the garden poppies we know as Shirley poppies were developed.

It is suggested that wild poppy was domesticated by the indigenous people of Western and Central Europe between 6000 and 3500 BC. Today the poppy family, annuals and perennials, contains 30 genera and about 600 species. Most are cold tolerant and prefer cool locations. The Oriental poppy and Iceland poppy are two of the most familiar perennial types.

Among the annual poppies, in addition to Flanders poppy, is the more notorious opium poppy which is illegal to grow in Missouri. The use of poppy as an opiate was known to ancient Egyptian doctors who had their patients eat seeds from a poppy to relieve pain.

Poppy seeds contain small quantities of both morphine and codeine, which are pain-relieving drugs still used today. Poppy seeds and fixed oils can also be nonnarcotic because when they are harvested the morphine practically disappears from the seeds twenty days after the flower has opened.

The Oriental poppy is the most popular garden variety. It produces large spectacular orange-red flowers 3½ to 4 inches in diameter. Petals have a crepe-paper texture. Single blooms grow on wiry stems extending above the low-growing and sharply toothed foliage. Broken stems and leaves yield a white, milky sap. Since it is not suited to extreme heat, in Missouri it flowers in the spring, usually April, and disappears by July.

Oriental poppy prefers well-drained soil and a sunny exposure. It should not be overwatered during its dormant period including throughout the winter. It can be planted with other species of annuals and perennials that will provide color in the area once the poppies go dormant. Oriental poppy can be started from seeds but will not flower until the second (or third) year. In addition to the orange-red variety, other colors include rose, salmon, pink and white.

Established plants of Oriental poppy can be divided after they have developed significant size, usually after about five years. Division should be done after flowering occurs and while the plants are dormant. Dividing early in the spring usually eliminates flowering that season and may encourage crown rot, especially during a wet spring.

Iceland poppy prefers cool climates and tends to be short-lived in Missouri and should be considered an annual in our climate. Iceland poppy has flowers that are very colorful and distinctive. One of the more durable varieties is the ‘Champagne Bubbles.’

If annual poppies interest you, the Shirley poppy is a good option. Some are quite colorful, have flowers that have been likened in texture to tissue paper, and are fairly easy to grow from seed. As a general rule, poppies do not transplant well; therefore, annual types should be seeded directly into the garden where they are to grow.

If started indoors, do so in a cool location and seed them in peat pots or other biodegradable containers that can be planted along with the plant into the ground. This practice will minimize root disturbance and maximize transplanting success. Poppies tend to reseed themselves very readily and can become invasive in the annual flower garden. To prevent this, remove seed pods before they mature and shed seed.

A second type of poppy, the peony-flowered poppy, treated as an annual in Missouri actually was developed from the opium variety and is legal to grow in Missouri. It bears spectacular, fully double flowers up to five inches.

Since poppies are a pollen source for bees, gardeners may consider adding them to their annual gardens.

Poppies have long been used as a symbol of sleep, peace, and death: Sleep because the opium extracted from them is a sedative, and death because of the common blood-red color of the red poppy in particular.

In Greek and Roman myths, poppies were used as offerings to the dead. Poppies used as emblems on tombstones symbolize eternal sleep.

This symbolism was evoked in the children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in which a magical poppy field threatened to make the protagonists sleep forever. A second interpretation of poppies in Classical mythology is that the bright scarlet color signifies a promise of resurrection after death.