During the First World War some of the bloodiest, most brutal fighting took place at Flanders in Belgium. Where there were once farms, homes and businesses, after the fierce battles little was left but fields of mud and the bodies of the fallen troops.
However one thing did survive – the poppy….
In 1915 John McCrae, a Canadian doctor serving in the war, wrote a poem called ‘In Flanders Fields’ all about the poppy and the war. The first line depicts poppies blowing in the wind among the crosses. The poem was eventually published and the poppy became an official symbol of hope and remembrance.
The reason we wear a poppy came from another poem, written in 1918 by an American called Moira Michael. In ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’ she wrote about how she would wear a poppy ‘in honour of the dead’.
The first poppy day was held in Britain on November 11th 1921 and was a national success. Every November since then we have worn poppies to remember those who fought for our country. The date of November 11th was chosen because most major hostilities during the First World War ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. This is also why we honour them with a few minutes silence at 11am on Remembrance Day.
Poppies don’t make very good cut flowers as their petals tend to fall off very quickly. So during the time around Remembrance Day plastic poppies are sold for a small donation as part of the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal. All the money goes to the millions who are working in – or who have worked in – the armed forces.
The corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is an annual plant that can germinate when the soil is disturbed – this is how it managed to grow on the sites of battlefields. Generally it flowers in late spring, but if the weather is warm enough more flowers can pop up in early autumn too.
It’s a big showy flower with four red petals, which often have a black spot at their base. Their size depends on the soil they are planted in; the poorer the soil the smaller and paler the blooms will be.
There are so many different varieties of poppy but all are grown in a similar way. You can either start them indoors a few weeks before the last frost or you can plant the seeds outside in March/April. Frost will kill the seedlings, so make sure you only put them outside once the weather has begun to get warmer.
Outside they prefer full sun or partial shade and soil that is well drained and slightly dry. Add general-purpose fertiliser once a month for best results and mulch around the base to keep weeds down. Poppies can cope well on their own, so unless you have a particularly dry spell, there’s no need to water them.
To promote new blooms you should deadhead the flowers. But don’t do this if you are planning on harvesting the seed.
Poppy seeds are often used for culinary purposes, especially in baking bread and cookies. Birds also love poppy seeds, so putting some of the dried seeds on your bird table could attract some newcomers. To harvest the seeds you should let the flower head die and drop off. Once it does snip off the seed pod and leave it in the sun to dry. Once dried you can remove the seeds.
Poppy seed oil is also found in the kitchen. It is also used as a carrier for oil paint as it helps to thin paint and varnish finished paintings.
Some poppies are also used in medicine, mainly to produce opiate painkillers such as morphine.
More than anything the poppy symbolises remembrance of soldiers who have died in battle. But it is also the symbol of Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. The ancient Greeks also thought that the poppy was a symbol of fertility and that the seeds could bring health and strength. So Greek athletes were given a mixture of poppy seeds, honey and wine to keep them strong and fit.
In Greek mythology Demeter was said to create the poppy in order to use it to get some sleep after the death of her daughter, Persephone.
The Romans introduced the poppy to England and also linked it with their god of sleep, Sommus. It’s clear that both the Greeks and the Romans understood that medicine derived from the poppy and used to induce sleep could also lead to death. The Christians then took the poppy and associated it with a restful sleep; it was sometimes carved into the wooden pews of churches.
The theme of sleep continues through the poppy’s history, even in modern culture. In The Wizard of Oz Dorothy falls asleep in a field of poppies.
You should be wearing those poppies proudly, they can be picked up from volunteers working all over the country in shopping centres, stations and on the street.
To donate to the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal please visit www.britishlegion.org.uk
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