In the Southwest, Veterans Day is a good time to plant poppy seed for spring poppies. Why mention this at all? Paper poppies were once sold to raise funds for veterans and their families left destitute by their service.
A little history here. For some of you it might be ancient history, but for some of us it’s not. We heard our grandfathers stories of the fighting on in the Great War (later called WW I). You may have also heard fathers and uncles discussing the differences between the Great War, WWII, and Korea. Then the cousins chiming in with Vietnam experiences, and, alas, the Desert Wars. My grandfather and great uncles were gone by the last wars but the comparisons went on. (I pray for world peace daily.)
In Flanders Fields
The practice of wearing a commemorative poppy takes its origin from the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written in May 1915 by a Canadian, John McCrae. He was serving in Europe on the Western Front and wrote the poem after the combat death of a dear friend. The poppies in the poem are the Flanders poppies, and they bloom in spring, covering the fields with swaths of red.
In the wild, Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeas) are brilliant red. The four poppy petals emerge from the bud with a crumpled appearance, much like a serviceman’s fatigues after several weeks in the trenches. Each bloom lasts only a single day, the petals scattering to the wind. These simple, poignant, blood-red flowers grew en mass over the graves on the Western Front.
Beyond Flander’s Fields
The Flanders poppies are found not just in Flanders but in open areas all across Europe. Found across Europe, but not native to that area. Evidence shows that that the species came from the warmer climates where agricultural cultivation began, somewhere in Mesopotamia. Indeed, ancient carvings and paintings show that the Flanders poppy has a long history of symbolism and association with agricultural fertility beliefs.
The commonly grown decorative Shirley poppy is a cultivar of the Flanders poppy. Plant breeders have changed the basic form to varieties with multiple petals and in colors of red, pink, rose, orange and pale lavender.
After the War
After the “Great War” was over, there was little financial support for the returned service personnel, and less for their families. To raise money to help veterans and their families, people began selling paper poppies made to look like the wildflower. The funds thus generated were used to provide assistance, including basic food, shelter, and artificial limbs for the former servicemen. Families left destitute by the loss of their breadwinner were also aided. If you do see someone offering paper poppies this Veterans Day, go ahead and get one (or more). They are one way to show support for soldiers and their families.
You can easily grow Flanders poppies in the Southwest (our climate is much like that of Mesopotamia). Ideally, plant the seeds a tad earlier in autumn with the rest of your wildflower seed, but right now should not be too late. Treat them like and Southwest wildflower (How to Plant Wildflowers – here).
Word Nerd Note: It is “Veterans Day” with no apostrophe – but with an “s” at the end of “veterans.” No apostrophe because it is not a day that belongs to veterans, it is a day to honor veterans. The date, November 11, is Armistice Day, the day the Great War ended. In Commonwealth nations, including Canada, New Zealand and Britain, it is known as “Remembrance Day.” In Canada especially, they commemorate the day and all veterans by reading Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem.
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