Beautiful Poppies: Plant Facts and the “In Flanders Fields” Poem

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The common or corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) in England (Photo by John Beniston (Palmiped), CC BY 3.0 license)

Poppies are beautiful plants in the family Papaveraceae. Most are herbaceous and short-lived, but many of them spread quickly. They are loved because they have colourful flowers. Most people probably think of the blossoms as bright red flowers, but they can also be orange, yellow, white, blue, and even purple. Poppies are popular as ornamental plants. The four types shown in the photos in this post are well liked.

Red poppies have a special significance. They are associated with the First World War and by extension with the Second World War as well. A plastic or paper poppy is worn close to the heart by many people on Remembrance Day in Canada and other countries. The poppy honours those who sacrificed their lives in war to protect their countries or their nation’s way of life.

The poppy symbol originates from a site in Europe where those killed in battle were buried and where wild poppies grew. In Flanders Fields is a poem written by a Canadian physician that commemorates the site and the first world war.

Iceland poppies

Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule) have a variety of colours (Photo by David Monniaux, CC BY-SA 3,0 license)

Poppies have highly lobed or dissected leaves and a stem containing a milky sap. The flowers of the genus Papaver have four to six petals. In their centre, they bear a whorl of tightly arranged stamens (the male structures) surrounding the pistil (the female structure). The pistil is made of fused carpels.

The fruit of the plant is a spherical capsule made from the pistil. It bears the stigmas of the carpels at its top. It’s often green to start with and becomes brown as it ages and dries out. The capsule releases its seeds through pores as it’s moved by the wind.

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Poppy capsules (Photo by jggrz, public domain license)

The poppy species that I see most often where I live is the California poppy, or Eschscholzia californica. It belongs to the poppy family but not to the Papaver genus, so its features are slightly different from those of typical poppies. It’s still an attractive plant, though. Its bright orange colour is a cheerful sight. The plant is the state flower of California.

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A California poppy in British Columbia (Photo by Linda Crampton)

Poppies are a beautiful sight in gardens or in the wild. One species (Papaver somniferum) is more than just an ornamental plant. It has both culinary and medicinal uses. It’s commonly known as the breadseed poppy or the opium poppy. Its seeds are a popular addition to baked goods. They are sometimes pressed to make an oil.

Some strains of the species produce opium, as one of its common names suggests. The chemical is used to make pain-relieving medicines such as morphine and codeine. The production of these plants is carefully regulated, as might be imagined. Their cultivation is prohibited in most areas, although some strains that don’t contain opium may be allowed in certain places

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A group of California poppies in a Vancouver botanical garden (Photo by Linda Crampton)

A bright red poppy is associated with both Remembrance Day and a famous poem by a Canadian physician named John McCrae. Remembrance Day occurs on November 11th each year. It’s known as Armistice Day in some countries and as Veterans Day in the United States. Although the poem seems to be popular in the US, based on what I’ve read Veterans Day doesn’t have quite the same meaning as Remembrance Day in Canada.

I think that in addition to reminding us of the bravery of those who fought and helped others during the first and second world wars, the poem might also remind us of the wars and consequent suffering that exist in the world today. This is especially important as we lose those who participated in the two world wars.

John McCrae

John McCrae, the author of “Flanders Fields” (public domain image)

John McCrae (1872–1918) was a Canadian doctor, surgeon, poet, and soldier who supported the troops in World War One. Sadly, he died of pneumonia on January 28th, 1918, shortly before the war ended. He’s buried in Wimereux Cemetery in France.

The death of a friend named Alexis Helmer during the war reportedly stimulated McCrae to write his famous poem. He created the poem either shortly before or shortly after Helmer’s funeral. McCrae apparently discarded the work because he thought it wasn’t very good, but his friends saved it. They sent it to Punch magazine in England, where it was published on December 8th, 1915. It soon became very popular. The poem refers to the burial place of many World War One soldiers. Wild poppies grew there and quickly spread between the crosses representing the locations of new graves.

McCrae’s poem is shown below. Interestingly, The Canadian War Museum says that it was probably meant to sound more belligerent than is realized today. The line “Take up our quarrel with the foe” was likely intended to be a serious message with a political  meaning. I read the poem every year and never tire of it.

Oriental poppy

The oriental poppy, or Papaver orientale (Photo by Hagen Graebner, CC BY-SA 2.5 license)

In Flanders Fields

 

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.

 

References

  • Information about poppies from the Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Facts about the California poppy from the Missouri Botanical Garden
  • Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae biography from Veteran Affairs Canada
  • In Flanders Fields and John McCrae from the Canadian War Museum

 

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