Carol O'Meara, Colorado State University Extension

Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension

LONGMONT – A tiny red poppy, placed in the left lapel button, commemorates one of the most horrific wars in history. Engulfing nation upon nation, one hundred years have passed since the signing of the Armistice to end World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.  Such a small, fragile flower represents remembrance of the war that took over 13 million lives.

People in countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, France, and Belgium observe Remembrance Day, also known as Armistice Day, on November 11 by wearing a red poppy to honor the memory of those – civilian and military – who lost their lives in wars.  Though in the United States the poppy is more often worn on Memorial Day, some honor the worldwide tradition on Veterans Day.

Why the poppy as a symbol of such horror? The delicate flower is tougher than it looks, returning each spring from either seed or sleeping plant. On the WWI battlefields of France, Belgium, and Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula, poppies sprouted, grew, and blossomed.  The juxtaposition of joyful flowers amid such sorrow gave rise to the moving poem “In Flanders Field” by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who had buried his close friend, killed the evening before in battle.

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

The poppies in that fateful field were Papaver rhoeas, known by many names, such as Flanders, Shirley, or corn poppies. An annual plant, it flowers through summer, typically May to August.   The tiny seeds can lie dormant in the ground for a long time, but if the soil is disturbed, in spring they germinate and grow.

This is what happened in parts of the front lines in Belgium and France, as the once-green region was reduced to churned -up mud and blasted forest. In the fighting-turned soil of the fields, poppy seeds germinated during the abnormally warm weather in the spring of 1915. The corn poppy also bloomed in parts of the battlefield on the Gallipoli peninsula in the spring of April 1915. Today, the Flanders poppy is the basis for the Remembrance Poppy distributed by members of the American Legion as a fund raiser for disabled and hospitalized veterans.

The plant is easy to grow but the seeds need cold before germination; sow them now for poppies next spring.  Available in a wide variety of colors, the flowers average 12-inches high while the blooms are one-to-three inches in diameter.

Poppies have very few disease or insect problems, asking only for well-drained soil in full sun to part shade that’s protected from wind. Wet soils during winter can cause plants to decline. Sow them where you want to grow them; they don’t like being disturbed once established. They are very popular with honey bees and seed heads are decorative throughout fall and winter.

By Carol O’Meara. Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Colorado State University Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, e-mail comeara@bouldercounty.org or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.