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What to know about red poppies this Memorial Day

On Monday, I encourage each of you to pause from your holiday festivities to reflect on the true meaning of Memorial Day and to remember the sacrifices of those who gave the last full measure of devotion to defend and protect our country throughout its history. As a boy growing up, I remember the artificial red poppies that everyone wore that symbolized the sacrifices and to remember those that served to defend and protect our country.

It was in World War I, that Lt. Col. John McCrae, who served as a brigade surgeon for an Allied artillery unit, spotted a cluster of red poppies blooming amid the broken ground and devastation following a terrific and costly battle in which a friend of his was killed. This picture inspired him to compose a poem, “In Flanders Field,” in which he gave voice to the fallen soldiers buried under those hardy poppies. His poem was published in the British Punch magazine in late 1915 and the poem would then be used at countless memorial ceremonies. It certainly became one of the most famous works of art to emerge from World War I. Its fame had spread far and wide by the time John McCrae himself died, from pneumonia and meningitis, in January 1918.

In the United States we wear the symbolic red flower on Memorial Day — the last Monday in May — to commemorate the sacrifice of so many men and women who have given their lives fighting for our country.

Papaver rhoeas known as the common poppy, corn poppy, corn rose, field poppy, Flanders poppy, or red poppy is an annual herbaceous species of flowering plant in the poppy family, Papaveraceae. The unique characteristic of this plant is that the seeds of the flower can remain dormant in the earth for years, but will blossom spectacularly when the soil is churned thus after the tremendous disturbance cause by a major battlefield engagement. This poppy is notable as an agricultural weed thus why it is known by the common names including “corn” and “field” poppy and after World War I as a symbol of dead soldiers. Before the advent of herbicides, P. rhoeas sometimes was abundant in agricultural fields. Although the corn poppy (and its cultivars such as the Shirley poppy) and the California poppy are widely grown in the gardens, only Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, has significant legal farm production in countries like India.

Enjoy the holiday and now you know more about the red poppy and its significance.

Bill Lamont is a professor emeritus in the department of plant science at Penn State and can be reached by email at wlamont@psu.edu.