Reflecting on 100 years of the poppy

November 12th, 2021

We often consider some plants weeds and overlook their beauty, symbolism, and ecological functions. The red poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is appreciated for its symbolism and beauty, but like many pioneer or ruderal plants it is actually considered an agricultural weed even though it serves important ecological functions by healing damaged and disrupted soil. (Photo by Jill Bishop.)

By Leif Einarson, Manager of Communications at GreenUP

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the poppy as Canada’s official Flower of Remembrance, I am drawn once again to the symbolism and mysteries of this plant.

“In Flanders Fields” was written by poet and soldier John McCrae who was born in Ontario.

McCrae noticed the red poppy (Papaver rhoeas) was one of the first flowers blooming in and around the crosses marking the graves of soldiers after the 1915 battle in Belgium’s Ypres Salient. This phenomenon was noticed across the battlefields of Europe in the wake of the terrible loss of life and environmental devastation of the First World War.

In a story on “CBC What on Earth,” Meneka Raman-Wilms asks why – of all plants – “were poppies the first to grow there? And why did they grow in such abundance?”

Raman-Wilms reaches out to Egan Davis for answers. Davis is the principal instructor for the horticultural training program at the University of British Columbia’s Botanical Garden.

“A poppy is one of those pioneer, ruderal plants,” explains Davis. “Their role is basically to patch [a] site after a major disturbance.”

Davis explains that seeds from these pioneer plants, like fireweed in Canada, are waiting in the soil to respond to a disturbance that removes most trees and vegetation, like a forest fire, flood, or human activity.

“I can’t imagine anything more disturbing to the earth and to human society than war,” Davis says. “But when poppies germinate after the war, that’s a sign of promise.”

Hence the red poppy as a symbol that helps us remember both the devastation of war and the promise of peace.

A commemorative pin recognizing Indigenous Veterans. The poppy is on the centre of a dreamcatcher, with two feathers and an Inuksuk below. (Photo by Leif Einarson.)

Did you know that the poppy is actually considered a weed? The beautiful red poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is known by common names like the corn poppy or field poppy because of its propensity for being first and fast to take over over agricultural fields shortly after they’ve been tilled and new crops have been planted.

Studies suggest that poppies can regenerate poor-quality soil, making way for the return of other plant species.

“I love growing poppies,” shares Jill Bishop, whom you may know from the Nourish Project, and as the Urban Tomato Lady. “They are very beautiful, both the flowers and the seed heads that they create. They are incredibly abundant. Each seed head generally contains dozens of seeds. They are pretty easy to grow and don’t need rich soil. They will self-seed and come back year after year. In my opinion, a worthwhile addition to any garden!”

The species of poppy that John McCrae described has variations in pink, orange, yellow, white, blue, and purple.

There is also variation in the commemorative poppies that people may choose to wear in addition to the traditional red poppy on Remembrance Day. White poppies – sometimes controversial – are symbols of peace and remembrance for all victims of war, including civilians, and as a challenge to the glamorization or justification of war.

Purple poppies are sometimes worn to remember the millions of horses, donkeys, and other animals that served and lost their lives in war.

This delicate nature of the poppy also symbolizes the fragility of life itself.

“I appreciate the delicate beauty of the poppy,” shares Jill Bishop. “They grow great in the garden, but they wilt quickly as cut flowers and in storms. Fleeting beauty to be enjoyed while in full bloom.”

That delicate nature also presented a bit of a challenge when, 100 years ago, the precursor to the Canadian Legion first proposed that the poppy be Canada’s official Flower of Remembrance. How can people wear a poppy at Remembrance Day ceremonies if they wilt so quickly as cut flowers?

Silk or cloth poppies were the original solution. Today, the Royal Canadian Legion is in charge of manufacturing the plastic poppies we wear each year. Proceeds from sales go to the Legion’s Poppy Trust Fund to support veterans.

A plastic poppy pin distributed by the Royal Canadian Legion with funds going to support veterans. In the 1920s these commemorative poppies were made of silk or fabric. The Royal British Legion in the United Kingdom distributes poppies made of paper. (Photo by Leif Einarson.)

Many First Nations artisans and leaders find it meaningful to create beaded poppies to commemorate lost loved ones and all veterans. As Laurie Leclair points out in an article in Anishinabek News, this practice is a bit controversial in regards to how poppy production and sales are regulated by the Legion.

First Nations, Métis, and Inuit are too often overlooked in colonial narratives and commemorations of war. While people may often associate November with Remembrance Day, November is officially recognized as Indigenous Peoples Awareness Month, and this month features several other days in honour of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people, including Indigenous Veterans Remembrance Day, Treaty Recognition Week, Louis Riel Day, and Inuit Day.

As Laurie Leclair points out, during “the years 1914-1918, 4,000 status First Nations people enlisted in the war. This number does not include those who joined up but did not self-identify as Indigenous.”

While Papaver rhoeas is introduced to North America, the wood poppy, or celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) is a member of the poppy family native to North America. The wood poppy is listed as Endangered in Canada.

“This is the most protected species of flower in Canada,” shares Joseph Pitawanakwat, an Anishinaabe plant medicine teacher from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island.

A cultivated wood poppy at GreenUP Ecology Park. Wood poppies bloom in May and early June with bright-yellow four-petalled flowers. In the wild, this species is protected provincially and listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. (Photo by Leif Einarson.)

“There are only three known populations of [wood poppy in Canada], all along the Thames River in London.”

“What makes this plant super special,” explains Pitawanakwat, “is that you have a couple communities of it growing along the Thames River in south-western Ontario, and where this plant is from is the Kentucky, Missouri area of the United States, which is over 800km away. That’s the nearest population of this plant.”

Pitawanakwat explains that, in order to germinate, the seeds of the wood poppy must fall within eight to twelve inches of the parent plant. Any farther, and they won’t grow.

Given that the wood poppy is limited to spreading eight to twelve inches per generation, it is remarkable – and mysterious – that we have isolated wood poppy populations in Ontario and 800km south in Kentucky, with nothing in between.

The poppy is a captivating plant. This beautiful and delicate pioneer species helps rejuvenate soil after human-caused and natural disturbances. Symbolically, the red poppy helps us honour veterans and remember all those who lost their lives in war.

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