Of poppies and Memorial Day

Oriental poppy 'Brilliant' - vjs

Oriental poppy 'Brilliant' - vjs

Memorial Day is upon us, the traditional (if unofficial) start of the summer season. You’re probably thinking of barbeques and beach time, but the day has its solemn side in the remembrance of those who died in battle defending our country.     

If you’ve given this some thought, you may take a moment on Monday to honor your family’s own servicemen (and women). You may even wear that sentiment for all to see -- not on your sleeve but on your lapel with a paper poppy from your local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). This is a facsimile of the Flanders poppy, which carpeted the World War I battlefields in northern France, where some of the bloodiest fighting of a brutal conflict occurred.

It was John McCrea, a doctor serving with the Canadian forces, who in 1915 penned the moving tribute to fallen soldiers that begins:

“In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row ...”

Soon the flower was taken up throughout the Western world as a symbol of honor and remembrance.

Oddly enough, while the American VFW embraced the poppy and began national distribution in 1922 to raise funds for veterans, the American Legion went back and forth on the issue. In 1920, the legion adopted the poppy, in 1921 repudiated it in favor of the daisy, but a year later fell in step with the VFW and returned the poppy to its official status. And so it has remained to this day.

Poppies seem to have lost favor in many gardens, and it’s a shame — nothing grabs the eye like a stand of fire-engine-red poppies, bobbing in the breeze on their wiry stems.

True, the perennial types have their drawbacks. Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale), while among the showiest, have foliage that dies a long, lingering and unattractive death after the flowers bloom in May. Just when the garden is hitting its summer peak, the poppy disappears entirely, leaving a hole in your planting scheme.

And it isn’t as though you can plant something like a shallow-rooted annual on top of the poppy patch, because in fall, the rosettes of soft, fuzzy leaves reappear and last through much of the fall and early winter. The best strategy is probably to plant poppies behind something that will achieve some height in summer and sprawl over the bare spot — baby’s breath, maybe, or boltonia with its tall stems of daisy-type flowers in white or pink.

Poppies aren’t easy to move around, either, except when very young, since they form a long taproot that doesn’t care to be disturbed. I had a big, gaudy patch of poppies on my property when I moved in, but unfortunately they were covered over when I built a level path to the back door that relieved guests of the need to hike like mountain goats up and down an awkward rise.

I did have them long enough to admire their crepe-paper blooms, and to learn the secret of cutting them for the vase. You should pick poppies when the buds are still closed, but showing color, and sear the cut tip with a flame. Put them in water and wait — like magic, they pop into full flower and flaunt their magnificent scarlet bloom. Without this treatment, cut poppies deflate like a spent balloon.

Poppies come easily from seed, and this year I’m thinking of circumventing the foliage issue by growing annual forms.

I have two kinds to try: ‘Fairy Wings,’ a single-flowered cultivar of Papaver rhoeas perfected by the British artist Sir Cedric Morris (1889-1982) that blooms in mother-of-pearl pastels, and ‘French Flounce,’ a mix of carnation and feather poppies (Papaver peoniflorum and laciniatum), that produces fat poufs of ruffled and fringed petals. Both should bloom through the summer, and when they’re finished, I’ll just pull them out. If they self-sow, so much the better.

Papaver somniferum 'Pink Chiffon' - David/Flickr

Papaver somniferum 'Pink Chiffon' - David/Flickr

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is a plant used since 5000 BC as a soporific and painkiller. Morphine and other compounds from the sap remained the only effective analgesic until modern medicine invented new preparations. In southern Asia, this plant is still raised as the source of illegal heroin.

New garden strains have turned the pallid mauve original into a colorful, double-flowered showboat that has little narcotic content — and doesn’t produce anything that will get you high when grown in northern climates. Still, thanks to your federal Drug Enforcement Agency, it is legal to possess the edible seeds (used in baked goods) but not to grow the plants in the United States. Too bad, since they’re gorgeous.

While somniferum ranks as the poppy most steeped in myth and ancient culture, the most legendary garden plant has to be the exquisite blue Himalayan “poppy,” a look-alike from another genus entirely, Meconopsis. First collected in Tibet in 1886, this romantically elusive plant was rediscovered in 1924 by plant hunter Frank Kingdon-Ward, who called it “dazzling as sapphires.”

Forget this one — it can’t be grown in the United States except in the cool, moist conditions of the Pacific Northwest. But at least the reason is horticultural, and not the dictates of misguided bureaucrats who can’t keep their noses out of other people’s gardens.