It’s one thing to be able to identify a plant. So you know the botanical and family name and you can tell me if I should plant it in sun or shade. Big deal. Can you tell me something interesting about the plant? Now that’s what gets people excited. That’s what creates the passion for plants! While on my internship this summer in Ontario, I visited Barbara Straton’s garden during the Shaw Garden tour. She was lucky enough to have Dr. Armitage meandering around her garden while telling his usual crazy and enthusiastic stories about plants. I decided to stand back and watch as he entranced unsuspecting listeners into a gardening glee.
When he told of how you should plant or where you should place a geranium people would just give a blank stare, almost in a daze, and nod. Half of them wouldn’t remember what was said 30 minutes later. But when he told stories about Tradescantia (Spiderwort, Liverwort, Lungwort, whatever you want to call it) and it’s healing powers for spider bites asthma, kidney problems, digestive problems and cancer, the reactions were completely different. They immediately wanted to know more. They were truly excited about the plant! I would like to talk to the local garden centers because I bet they sold quite a few spiderworts that day. I was told a story a few days ago so I did some follow up research to get the whole scoop. It’s a tale of passion, of remembrance, and the connection between the University of Georgia and a town just to the Northwest of my home for 8 weeks in Ontario, Canada called Guelph. It’s the story of the red poppy.
The story takes place during WWI, 2 days before the Armistice was declared on November 11th, 1918. Moina Michael had left her job at the University of Georgia to serve her country. She was denied a request to serve overseas because of her age so instead she worked at the War Secretaries’ headquarters in New York. During the morning, Moina found a few moments to browse through a magazine that a young soldier had left on her desk.
She read the John McCrae poem “Flanders Fields“. McCrae produced the poem in Guelph, Ontario and thought the poem was rubbish. It was two of his friends that sent the poem to the Saturday Morning Post where it was published. When Moina Michael read the poem she described the experience as “deeply spiritual… She felt as though she was actually being called in person by the voices which had been silenced by death.”
At that moment she vowed to always wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance. She scribbled a poem to commemorate this pledge. It was known as “We Shall Keep the Faith”.
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.
The poppy had been visible on the front lines in Belgium and France because of how the seed is germinated. Poppies are annuals, meaning they germinate, flower, and produce seed in one year. The seed will lay dormant until it is disturbed by something. The soldiers were disturbing the ground and combined with an unusually warm spring, the war torn fields were dotted with bright red poppies. It sends a chill down my spine to think about what the soldiers were seeing. The muddy ground, tunneled and ravished with bodies of friends and enemies alike strewn across the fields. And there it was. A small flower, the field poppy, that endured all of this to show its condolences for the fallen soldiers.
Three men caught word of Moina’s vow to the red poppy and offered her 10 dollars to show appreciation for the effort she had made to brighten the office with the poppies. She used the $10 to buy 25 more red poppies and handed them out to people in the office, saving one flower for herself.
Moina returned to the University of Georgia where she taught a class of disabled servicemen. While teaching she campaigned tirelessly using her own expenses to have the poppy officially adopted as the Memorial Poppy. In 1920, one year after she had been so touched by John McCrae’s poem, the American Legion officially adopted the American poppy as the flower of remembrance.