Although a lovely garden annual native to Europe and Greece, the red poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is also a symbol of the horrors of the battlefield, specifically World War I. A Canadian doctor, Lt. Col. John McCrae, was inspired to write his poem "In Flanders Fields" upon seeing fields of red poppies where battles had taken place in Flanders, Belgium. McCrae's poem lives on as well as the red poppy and all it symbolizes.
Corn Poppy Legend
It is said a cornfield will have a good yield if red poppies grow on its perimeter, according to Rita Jacinto, writing for the website Botanical.com. Greek legend says that Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, couldn't sleep, neglecting the cornfields under her care. The god of sleep Somnus created the poppy and gave Ceres a potion that helped her sleep. The cornfields began to grow. Thus the red poppy became the corn poppy.
Red Poppies and the Battlefield
Red poppies growing in battlefields are poignant, almost magical, yet the reason for their appearance lies in the plant's own nature. According to ANZAC Day, an Australian website commemorating a World War I battle in Turkey, poppy seeds lie dormant in the ground until they are turned over and the sun can hit them. Battles disturb the soil and the poppies begin to grow. The phenomenon was witnessed in battlefields in Turkey by Australian and New Zealand forces (ANZACs) the same year as in Flanders.
Genghis Khan, according to ANZAC Day, was so brutal in war that battlefields were literally "drenched" in blood. Legend has it that in the aftermath of these battles, white poppies were everywhere. During the early 1800s, the battles of the Napoleonic wars tore up fields and soaked them in blood, causing poppies to again flourish. Poppy seeds are so small, according to Wildflower Information.org, that they must not be covered and can be dropped on bare ground.
The red poppy is also known as the "Flanders Poppy" and is the emblem of the American Legion. McCrae's poem begins with these lines: "In Flanders Fields the poppies blow between the crosses row on row." This is still a powerful image nearly a century after the poem was written. According to Jacinto, the poem was eventually published in "Punch" magazine, and by 1918, was famous in the Allied countries.
Legacy of the Red Poppy
Moira Michael, a woman from the United States, was so touched by McCrae's poem that she wore a red poppy as a remembrance of war and also as a symbol of hope, according to Jacinto. A French woman, Madame Guerin, heard of this custom and began to sew red poppies to raise funds for veterans, families and orphans of war. Other countries, including the United States, began to do the same, and the custom still exists today.
Growing the red poppy is a way to honor history. It is also beautiful and easy to grow. Wildflower Information.org recommends a site that has full sun to partial shade. It can tolerate dry conditions, but it doesn't like a compacted or clay soil. Although an annual, the red poppy can reseed; just allow the seeds to fall and don't cover them. There is also a mix of other Papaver rhoeas varieties in other colors.