Poppies, in honor of veterans - Tucson Local Media: El Sol

Poppies, in honor of veterans

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Posted: Wednesday, November 11, 2009 12:00 am | Updated: 1:33 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

I was all set for this column to be about Veterans Day poppies.

Then I discovered that, in America at least, they are generally considered Memorial Day poppies, sold by veterans. This makes a whole lot of sense, because the practice of wearing a commemorative poppy takes its origin from the poem "In Flanders Fields," written in May 1915 by a Canadian serving on the Western Front after the death of a friend. The poppies in the poem are the Flanders poppies, which bloom in the spring.

In the wild, Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeas) are red. A very vivid red, with an occasional unpigmented white one appearing in the fields. The four flower petals emerge from the bud with a crumpled appearance, much like a serviceman's fatigues after several weeks in the trenches. Each bloom lasts 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.

The Flanders poppies are found not just in Flanders but in open areas all across Europe. They are considered somewhat of a weed in agricultural fields. They are also known as the red, field or corn poppy because they grow in the fields where grains are grown. "Corn" is the old name that used to be applied to wheat, rye, barley and other cereal grains.

Found across Europe, the Flanders poppy did not originate in Europe. Botanists believe that the species came from the warmer climates where agricultural cultivation began, somewhere in Eurasia. Indeed, ancient carvings and paintings show that the Flanders poppy has a long history of symbolism and association with agricultural fertility beliefs.

Poppies are used in a number of ways. Poppy seed is used in baking to make poppy seed cake and hamentashen, and to top breads and bagels. The red petals are used to make syrups and both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Red poppy syrup is a traditional beverage of Mediterranean regions like Bozcaada. 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.

In the 1920s, after the "Great War" was over, there was no G.I. Bill to help the returned service personnel. 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 paper poppies this Veterans Day, go ahead and get one. They are one way to show support for soldiers and their families.

You can grow Flanders poppies in Tucson. Ideally, plant the seed in autumn with the rest of your wildflower seed. Treat them like our Arizona wildflowers, with water to get established, then weekly watering once their little leaves show. The brilliant scarlet of their flowers is a traffic stopper on my street.

Incidentally, I also learned that it is "Veterans Day" with no apostrophe but with an "s" at the end of "veterans" because it is not a day that "belongs" to veterans, it is a day for honoring all veterans. The date, Nov. 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 Lt. Col. John McCrae's poem.

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