Weeds have a bad rep–they invade our beautiful landscapes, grow unbidden in strange places like sidewalk cracks, and require constant eviction from vegetable gardens. So why is a weed front and center in celebrating Memorial Day here in the US? Because the beautiful red poppy is the perfect symbol to honor this country’s fallen in service to their country.
Although they may not look the part, poppy flowers are actually weeds that grow in the wild around the world. The beautiful red poppy with tissue-like flowers connected to Memorial Day is the Papaver rhoeas (don’t ask me to pronounce that), also known as the red-flowered corn poppy. Despite its beauty, the red poppy is deemed an agricultural weed. This poppy is to be distinguished from its black sheep cousin, Papaver somniferum, an opium source. (Boo hiss!)
A red flower, weed or not, is certainly appropriate as a token as remembrance on Memorial Day since red symbolizes war’s bloodshed. But why choose a poppy, especially if it’s a weed? Throughout history poppies have served as a symbol of sleep, peace, and death. Poppies were connected to sleep because the opium extracted from the opium poppy is a sedative. In ancient Egypt, poppies were associated with Osiris, the god of death. In Greek and Roman mythology, poppies were offered to the dead. While this historical background is interesting, it isn’t the reason for the red poppy’s selection for fallen soldiers.
World War I, also known as The Great War, took place between 1914 and 1918. Most of the fighting occurred in the fields and wilderness across Europe with 8.5 million soldiers dying as a result. This conflict included trench warfare in the poppy fields of West Flanders, Belgium. Of course, the skirmishes destroyed not only human life but plant life as well. But out of the decimation came beauty in the form of a weed–the red poppy.
While presiding over services for a fellow soldier and friend killed in the Second Battle of Ypres, Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae, M.D. spotted bits of red sprouting up between the rows of graves; they were red poppies. This sight of new life and color arising from the decimation of war inspired him to compose “In Flanders Fields,” a three-stanza poem about death and war which is perhaps the most famous wartime poem ever. Written May 3, 1915, the poem was published the same year and remains well-known to date. The opening two lines reference the emergence of the weeds of war: “In Flanders field the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row….”
Indeed, the hardy red poppy flourished in post-war Europe. Why the boom of these blooms? Scientists attribute it to soil enrichment in France and Belgium from the rubble left from the war. The abundance of lime in the fields led to fertile soil for red covering them, this time in the form of poppies and not the blood of fallen soldiers.
The American Legion adopted the poppy as its official symbol of remembrance in 1920. The flowering weed represented all the fallen soldiers who had given their lives for their country. Displaying or wearing a poppy (real or artificial) came to be promise never to forget those service members who’d made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. This symbol became so powerful that a red poppy shortage occurred in 1924. People did not want to forget and wanted to make their remembrance visible.
Remembering was put into action in 1924 when the distribution of poppies became a national program of the American Legion. The Veterans of Foreign Wars also jumped on the poppy bandwagon. Its members began handing out artificial poppies around Memorial Day in exchange for donations to veterans’ service programs. In addition to bolstering honoring the fallen, this program also benefits veterans who are disabled or in need. These individuals in VA facilities are paid to assemble artificial poppies for distribution through the Buddy Poppy Program.
Poppies have continued to star in Memorial Day activities. The Friday before Memorial Day has now been designated by Congress as National Poppy Day. Falling on May 26th in 2023, this day of recognition offers yet another opportunity for Americans to honor their fallen by sporting a poppy whether real, artificial, or a pin.
School children can learn about the meaning behind the poppy with a Poppy Poster Contest offered by the American Legion Auxiliary. Open to students in grades 2 through 12, entrants exhibit their artistic talents on an 11”x14” poster board using the poppy.
Those in Washington, D.C. are able to view USAA’s Poppy Wall of Honor on the National Mall, a part of Memorial Day observances since 2017. This wall holds 645,000 poppies in honor of America’s war dead since World War I, providing a stunning representation of the amount of sacrifice by those wearing our country’s uniform.
While Memorial Day is about the perspective of the living, what about that of the fallen? McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Field” attempts to capture their thoughts in his poem which is written from their perspective: “We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived…now we lie In Flanders Fields.”
And what do the fallen expect for their sacrifice? According to Mcrae’s poem, “If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.” It’s up to the living to make their deaths meaningful. The fallen should never be forgotten, and the lives we lead every day should make the most of what their sacrifice has allowed us.
If you didn’t wear a red poppy over Memorial Day Weekend, ask yourself why. And what would those in Flanders Fields say about omitting that beautiful weed from your holiday?
Have you lost a family member or friend to war? If so, how do you remember and honor them? If not, do you still have a duty to remember those who sacrificed for you generally? How do you feel about wearing a weed, even if it’s a pretty one?