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Red poppies and Memorial Day

May 29, 2011
By JOYCE COMINGORE, Garden Club of Cape Coral

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,

Love and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from hailing 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.

- John McCrae


Special to THE BREEZE

I was blessed by teachers that made us memorize and recite special poems - poems that ingrained our souls and made us better people. This stirred patriotism in my being. This poem was written May 3, 1913, by John McCrae, a doctor in the Royal Canadian Medical Corps, on the battlefield in World War I, as he observed the action, much like our "Star Spangled Banner." Published in 1915, it inspired a U.S. professor Moina Micheal to publish her own poem in tribute to the poem's opening lines. She vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for the fallen in the war.

In America, we celebrated Decoration Day to honor the dead soldiers of the Civil War, created in May 1868. It later became Memorial Day, to be celebrated on May 30. When I was younger, Memorial Day was a day spent at the cemetery placing flowers and saying prayers for the brave fallen soldiers, at family picnics, watching parades and flying the American flag. But we soon started putting flowers on all our loved one's graves. Traditional Memorial Day observances have diminished over the years, because we started honoring all dead, not just our fallen soldiers. The difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day is, Memorial Day was set aside to honor U.S. military personnel who have died in the service of our country. Veterans Day honors all personnel who have served honorably.

Memorial Day has been changed to the last Monday in May and turned into a three-day holiday, further diminishing the importance of the day. Proper flag etiquette has been forgotten and graves of fallen soldiers have been neglected, parades are sparsely attended and taps are rarely sounded.

Nowadays, some places still have observances to honor the gravestones of the fallen. Arlington National Cemetery places small flags at more than 260,000 gravestones and its patrolled 24 hours a day during the weekend, ensuring that they all remain standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery for its annual Good Turn. Since 1998, on the Saturday before Memorial Day, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle on nearly 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye's Heights, and in 2004, Washington, D.C., held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years.

Gardening stores now have many baskets of red, white and blue plants for sale, but the red poppy is the symbol of Memorial Day. The red poppy is native to most of Eurasia and North Africa, and it expanded its range to Central Europe, where it became linked to war. The Western Belgium area of Flanders' experienced four full years of war and destruction where an astonishing number of almost 10 million soldiers killed and 20 million were wounded. Battle losses were greater than any war before or since. The bucolic meadows of Flanders had long been full of wildflowers every spring and summer. But they all disappeared during the Great War, as World War I was called, with the constant trampling and bombing that prevented the reseeding of these annuals for four years.

When the war was over and the poppies were able to bloom again, it was a spectacular display. Seed counts were taken and over 2,500 poppy seeds per square acre were found. They are the symbol for the American Legion to sell for one's lapel for Memorial Day and in Great Britain on their Remembrance Day.

The Flanders poppy is Papaver rhoeas, or corn poppy. I almost felt like I was doing something illicit when looking up poppy, but I was assured that its cousin from Asia, Papaver somniferum, is the opium poppy, not the Papaver rhoeas. The corn poppy does not contain opium. It dates back thousands of years and was found in Egyptian tombs dated some 3,000 years ago. The god Morpheus made crowns of the flowers, giving them to those he wanted to put to sleep - shades of "The Wizard of Oz," where Dorothy and her friends entered the field of poppies and fell asleep. It contains a substance named rhoeadine, a mild sedative used to put people to sleep.

It was considered an agriculture weed where its gray leaves and latex have an acrid taste and are mildly poisonous to grazing animals. The seeds are very long lived. Scatter these on disturbed soil and barely cover, only enough to keep them moist. Hard clay soil prevents the taproot from going down and flourishing.

Floradata says they will grow in zones 7 through 10, but all others cut it off at zone 9. I found it difficult to grow them here. Their bloom colors range from whites, salmons, pinks, orange and red. If you want to use them as cut flowers, sear the cut end of the stem with a match or lighter.

Their seeds are tiny black dots that you find on poppyseed buns or in muffins or can be used for baking. If going to take a drug test, avoid them, they contain trace amounts of alkaloids.

Thank a tree for absorbing Carbon dioxide and giving us our life saving oxygen.

Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, board member of the Fort Myers/Lee County Garden Council, National Director of the American Hibiscus Society, and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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