Poppies Serve as Red Badges of Sacrifice

Learn about poppies and their significance to American war veterans.

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European corn poppies bloom in June amid old Roman ruins. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself - DIY)

By Maureen Gilmer, DIY — Do It Yourself Network

Jack was a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Besides beautiful women, his two great loves were brandy and ice cream. He flew Old Glory in the front yard of his house. On Memorial Day he offered everyone a little red paper flower in return for even the smallest contribution to veterans' causes.

The flowers seemed to have no link to Jack's wars. They were poppies, a red wildflower of Europe, botanically known as Papaver rhoeas. Fondly called corn poppies, they thrive in wheat fields and waysides from Ireland to the Mediterranean. They would obtain their name from the grains once collectively known as "korn" long before American corn (Zea maize) was discovered in the New World.

Blooming in scarlet red, the flower began an early association with British military battlefields and their famous tunics dubbed "redcoats". Legends say poppies at Waterloo, Belgium, grow where blood fell from the wounded in this seminal battle between the armies of France's Napoleon and Britain's Duke of Wellington.

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Summer-blooming red corn poppies bloom in tandem with yellow gladiolus. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself - DIY)

Corn poppy is a colonizer that doesn't like competition from other fast growing annuals. It will not sprout unless the soil is disturbed, giving it a head start on its competition. Sometimes poppy seed lies in the earth for years, even decades, waiting for conditions to be right. Then, all at once, it blooms in a spectacular display.

What many know as Flanders Fields is a part of this same agricultural landscape of Belgium. It would become part of the dreaded Western Front of World War I, where trench life, influenza and poison gas would take the lives of 8,000 men per day in the first month. Hundreds of thousands would follow.

The entire Western Front became an enormous killing ground, scarred by bomb craters, trenches and miles of barbed wire. Not a blade of grass or a green leaf could be found for miles. The mud was legendary. At the end of the battles tens of thousands on both sides would be buried beneath the cold ground of Flanders.

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The corn poppy is the ancestor of more exotic-looking Shirley poppy strains bred in England. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself - DIY)

After the guns were finally stilled, the poppy seeds buried long ago were brought to the surface. This churned soil hosting no competition was enriched by the nitrogen of blood and bodies. With the spring came a sea of blooms spreading blood red as a sign from Nature and God that this ground was hallowed.

Maj. John McCrae, a Canadian battlefield doctor, wrote the poem "In Flanders Fields" during the conflict after burying a good friend. In 1918, two days before the Armistice was signed, Moina Michael, working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, began wearing a little red silk poppy on her lapel to "keep faith with all who died."

She became instrumental in establishing the poppy emblem as our national memorial symbol shared by France and England. She also believed it should help us remember that "those who were returning also had mental, physical and spiritual needs." (To learn more about the poppies, log on to The Great War website: www.greatwar.co.uk.)

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Red poppies are charming in containers with white alyssum and gold yarrow. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself - DIY)

In 1923 the American VFW established the "Buddy Poppy" program in the United States to employ disabled U.S. veterans to make flowers. The day of remembrance would be Memorial Day when those who made contributions to veterans' causes could wear little red flowers with pride.

Sadly, our memory of such mammoth sacrifice and the freedom it earned grows dim, and our courage wanes with the next news cycle. But men like Jack won't let us forget because to them the choices are simple. Remember the past and those lessons learned will guide us in the future.

If you see the old soldiers with their poppies this Memorial Day, don't pass by without leaving a generous donation. Accept the small paper flower and wear it in pride for it says the words of a great poet, Laurence Binyon: "At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them" (from "For the Fallen," 1914).

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of "Weekend Gardening" on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at mo@moplants.com. For more information, visit : www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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