As Memorial Day approaches, we can think of many activities, traditions and events that will take place over the three-day weekend. A retreat to the lake, a family cookout, the opening of the community pool, these are just some of the memories that come to my mind when I think of this “kick-off to summer” holiday. It wasn’t until recently that I added the red poppy (Papaver rhoeas) to this list. But what does a flower have to do with a national holiday dedicated to honoring our fallen soldiers?
Several years ago, I had the honor of hearing world-renowned lecturer, author and horticulturist Dr. Allan Armitage speak to Arboretum members at a special event titled Tales from the Garden – Stories Your Teacher Never Taught You. Among the many stories and quirky tidbits that Dr. Armitage shared, I was struck by a poem that he read to the group. Written by World War I Colonel John McCrae, who was a medical officer with Canada’s First Brigade Artillery, “In Flanders Fields” expressed McCrae’s grief over the countless graves of soldiers who had died on Flanders’ battlefields, an area located in western Belgium and northern France where McCrae was stationed. In his poem, McCrae described an image of bright red poppies that were blooming among the rows of white crosses that marked fallen soldiers’ resting place. Later on, McCrae’s beautifully written words became a rallying cry to all who fought in the World War I, and it was first published in December 1915 in the British magazine Punch.
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.
Dr. Armitage further explained how McCrae’s poem touched hundreds of others and how these vibrantly-colored blooms later became an international symbol for veterans.
American school teacher Moina Michael, later dubbed as the “Poppy Lady,” and Anna E. Guerin of France were hugely impacted by McCrae’s poem after it was published in 1915. Both sought to raise funds for orphans and others left destitute by the war by selling artificial poppies in their respective countries, and both raised awareness for veterans through different partnerships and associations. By 1920, the poppy was known in America, Great Britain, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as the “Flower of Remembrance,” and in August of 1922, it was adopted as the official memorial flower of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
While traditionally silk poppies are sold during Veterans Day as a way to raise funds for veterans and their affected families, many people also wear red or white poppies on Memorial Day to honor America’s fallen. While you are driving to your destination this weekend, look out for red poppies (many road banks are currently full of them) and remember Flanders Fields and the real meaning of this holiday. A flower can truly have a lasting impact.