Memorial Day Poppies

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.

–Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae In Flanders Fields

Poppies, Papaver rhoeas, in field between Kelling and Weybourne, North Norfolk, England. Credit: John Beniston via Wikipedia

Field or common poppies, Papaver rhoeas, are wildflowers common to Europe and Asia. They are a separate species from the ornamental California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). While the common poppy may not produce the intensely sedative alkaloids as the opium poppy, it does synthesize secondary metabolites which can induce a calming and sleepy feeling in humans. Remember the field of poppies Dorothy and her gang ran through on the way to the Emerald City? Thus, this common biochemical feature of poppies has associated these plants with sleep.

Papaver rhoeas Credit: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen via Wikipedia

The field poppy became the symbol of fallen soldiers after World War I. In the poems at the beginning and end of this post, ‘Flanders Fields’ referred to the general area of the Western Front of the conflict. The new modern techniques of trench warfare with heavy moving machinery and artillery fire left the landscape a razed and uprooted mess. This was the perfect opportunity for the large number of dormant poppy seeds to finally germinate ahead of all other vegetation. A multitude of delicate red flowers bursting forth from the war-torn ground seemed like a cue from nature to reflect on the enormity of the human sacrifice associated with the conflict. Poppies are now a symbol of soldiers that paid the ultimate price in battle and are part of modern ceremonies to honor these losses. In America, this is celebrated on Memorial Day and elsewhere in Europe on Remembrance Day (November 11, Armistice Day, marking the end of the WWI conflict).

1948 U.S. postage stamp honoring Moina Michael Credit: Wikipedia

While the imagery blood-colored flowers sprouting out of battlefields and fresh graves of soldiers provides a striking scene that would seem ordained by higher powers, a few biological properties of Papaver rhoeas seeds are responsible. This wildflower produces many tiny seeds that reside in a dormant state when buried underground. When these seeds are unearthed by a plow or tanks or mortar blasts, the exposure to light triggers the biochemical pathway to start germination. Yes, poppy seeds actually require light for germination. Other seeds, like lettuce seeds, also need light and it is important not to bury them too deeply under the soil if you are trying to coax them to grow. So, while seeds are the ultimate biological storage devices, they are not simply inert cases for the next botanical generation. They have ways of sensing all kinds of things about their environment- light, soil nutrients, and temperature.

These seed properties create a lifestyle that ensures survival on a population level for these species. Not all seeds from any one individual will germinate in the next annual cycle, and the buried seeds will be kept as a reserve within the ground. Thus, if conditions in one growing season prevent flowers from surviving through the seed production phase of their lifecycle, there are still some seeds in the ground that can try again the next season or the next when conditions may be more favorable. After all, eventually the ground will be disturbed again by animals, a plow and even by the machines of war. There will always be poppies waiting to bloom and remind us of things we should not forget.


Poppy Credit: Lajsikonik via Wikimedia Commons

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,

Sleep sweet – to rise anew!

We caught the torch you threw

And holding high, we keep the Faith

With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led;

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies,

But lends a lustre to the red

Of the flower that blooms above the dead

In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red

We wear in honor of our dead.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;

We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought

In Flanders Fields.

— Moina Michael We Shall Keep the Faith




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