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Red poppies are a special custom on Memorial Day

Red Poppies
Red Poppies
Michael Engelen

Have you ever been out and about on Memorial Day and seen an elderly veteran with a handful of red poppies for sale? If so, do you know the reason s/he is selling the flowers? The reason is part legend and part history.

Following the death of a young friend, Lt Alexis Helmer, on May 2, 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres, Lt. Colonel John McCrae, a member of the Canadian Army, wrote In Flanders Fields. Lt. Helmer died from a direct hit by a German shell when he left his dugout. The shell obliterated the majority of the young lieutenant. McCrae found what body parts he could and due to the absence of a chaplain, erected a small wooden cross over the grave of his friend after performing a short service. McCrae would also lose his life prior to war’s end to pneumonia. He served four years on the Western Front. From Lt. McCrae’s dispatch book, the poem made its way to the pages of Punch Magazine:

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.

John McCrae

(1872-1918)

By 1918, Flanders Fields was well known throughout the allied countries. An American woman named Moina Michael penned a few lines in reply:

We cherish too, the poppy red

that grows on fields where valor led;

It seems to signal to the skies

that blood of heroes never dies

After composing the verse, she began the custom of wearing a red poppy to memorialize the sacrifices made during war, in addition to acting as a symbol of keeping the faith.

Though many varieties of poppies can be found, the one referred to in this poem is the "Papaver rhoeas," better known as “Flanders Poppy,” though the more common name is the “corn poppy.” Native to the area around the Mediterranean, it is a common sight throughout the cultivated fields of southern Europe. The corn poppy is the ancestor of today’s Shirley poppy.

Naturalized throughout the United States, it is a hardy annual native to Europe. The blossoms are large, two to four inches in size and fire engine red with a vivid purplish-black center. The stem on which it grows is erect and hairy; remaining inconspicuous so as to allow the blossom the opportunity to pronounce its full beauty.

A legend thousands of years old is spoken of this bright red flower. The poppy has been found in Egyptian tombs whose age is stated to be upwards of 3,000 years old. In the Codex Vindobonensis, a poppy drawing was created for Anicia Juliana, the Byzantine princess. The Codex’s age is 1,000+ years. When Homer later wrote the Iliad, he compared the poppy to a dying warrior.

Legend, as we know, fuses fiction with fact. The fact about Papaver rhoeas is it does contain rhoeadine, a non-poisonous substance used for centuries as a mild sedative. A scene from the movie, The Wizard of Oz shows the Wicked Witch of the West creating a field of poppies. As Dorothy and her friends proceed through the field to reach the Emerald City, the sedative effects of the poppies put Dorothy, Toto and the lion to sleep. The ancient Romans would use it to help heal the heartbreak of lost/broken love. What this poppy does not contain is opium. That is found in its evil cousin, papaver somniferum, native to various areas in Asia.

The Egyptians are not the only country to have a legend of the poppy. The Greeks have their version as well. According to Greek mythology, Hypnos, the poppy's creator, was the Greek god of sleep. His reason for fashioning the flower was to help Demeter, goddess of the grain. Her daughter, Persephone, goddess of springtime, had been kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld. As a result, Demeter was unable to sleep and thus had no energy to help the corn to grow.

Hypnos created an elixar from the flower and convinced Demeter to drink it. Before long, she was sound asleep. Once she was well-rested, Demeter was back to work with the grain. Due to this legend, the appearance of poppies in a corn field is known to generate excitement about the possibility of a good harvest. Hypnos' son, Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, fashioned crowns from the flowers, then placed these crowns on the heads of those he wished to put to sleep. The temple erected to him is decorated with poppies.

Why, you ask, is this red, low growing flower referred to as ‘corn’? The term is due to where the poppy commonly grows – fields of cereal grains the likes of oats and wheat. In the British Isles (Scotland, England & Ireland), these crops are commonly referred to as “corn.” In Europe, Asia and North Africa however, the poppy is considered a weed due to the fact it competes with grain crops in the fields where it grows, thus diminishing the crop’s yield. Also called “field poppy,” it has made its way to Australia, New Zealand, and North America.

Now the question, “Okay, I can see how poppies connect with farmers; but how does the soldier figure in to the picture?” Another legend offers that answer. This one involves Ghengis Khan and Napoleon. In the process of annihilating the enemies of Ghengis Khan, the battle field was churned up and drenched in blood. In time, the field was covered with pure white poppies. The same phenomenon occurred in the early 19th century, following the Napoleonic wars. When the blood-drenched fields were later plowed, the ground erupted in a panorama of poppies.

Long before World War I, the red poppy symbolized death, renewal and life. Seeds from the poppy have the potential to lie dormant in the soil for years, then suddenly bloom in a spectacular manner when the soil is plowed. Beginning in late 1914, the fields of northern France and Flanders became the scene of astounding disturbances. A short time later, multitudes of red poppies appeared.

During a visit to the United States, a French woman named Madam Guerin learned of John McCrae’s poem and the poppy custom. When she returned to France, Guerin decided to take things one step further. She began to hand-make the flowers, which she then sold in an effort to raise funds to benefit destitute women and children, in addition to the orphans living in France’s war-torn areas. The tradition soon spread to Canada, then moved to Australia and finally the United States. Proceeds from the sale of poppies today normally serve to help a variety of programs for veterans.

Each Memorial Day, be sure to buy and wear a poppy. As you pin it to your lapel or blouse, remind yourself of John McCrae’s poem and give thanks,- not just on Memorial Day, but throughout the year, for the brave men and women who have traded their lives for your freedom.