Poppies: From Flanders Field to your Garden

Jill Staake

This past weekend, America honored its veterans with parades, solemn ceremonies, and speeches. In many places, people wore red poppies pinned to their lapels, a symbol of veterans since World War I. Other countries around the world celebrate this day too (calling it Remembrance Day and Armistice Day), and many of those citizens also wore the familiar red poppies. This tradition, of course, was inspired by the famous poem “In Flanders Field”, written in 1915 by Canadian soldier Major John McCrae.

Poppies, to Major McCrae, symbolized a bit of hope among the notoriously bleak battlefields of Belgium. Why were they there? These battlefields had once been farmer’s fields, and in this region red Corn Poppies (Papaver rhoeas) are actually a common weed in agriculture. As often is the case with weeds, the poppies returned even in the trampled and disturbed earth of war-torn fields, seemingly unable to be defeated. (Don’t we all know the case of weeds like this in our own gardens!) Major McCrae choose to see those indefatigable flowers as symbols of his fellow soldiers, fighting on in the face of overwhelming odds. His poem touched people around the world, and in 1918, a push was begun by a woman named Moina Michael to make the red poppy the symbol of veterans. (Learn much more here from the Florida Native Plant Society Blog.)

You can grow poppies in your own garden, to honor veterans or just to enjoy their cheerful blooms. Be cautious, though, about which species you select. As noted above, the traditional red poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is a difficult weedy plant in its native Europe; introducing it elsewhere can lead to unwanted invasive plants disrupting native ecosystems. Instead, seek out and choose poppy species that are native or at least non-invasive to your area. There are more than 770 species in the family Papaveraceae, so you’re likely to find something that grows well in your garden. Here are a few options:

Western U.S.:  The common poppy species out west is the California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), with blooms ranging color from cream to gold. These poppies are an annual in colder climates, and a perennial in warmer areas. Grow them in full sun and well-drained soil, and deadhead frequently to avoid aggressive re-seeding if that concerns you.

Eastern U.S.: In the east, a common native poppy is the Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). This poppy is a lovely bright yellow, and grows best in a shady garden with rich soil, mimicking the forest floors where it grows wild.

Other common poppy species, like Himalayan Poppy or Oriental Poppy, may be appropriate for your garden depending on your area. It’s important to note that the Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum) is illegal to plant in many areas; while this law is not usually enforced in backyard gardens, it’s probably best to stick with native species and avoid the risk.

Do you grow poppies in your gardens? Tell us where you live and which species you have in the comments below!

  1. says

    Thanks for sharing this connection; one I never knew or maybe never paid attention to. Poppies are one of my favorite flowers with their delicate tissue paper-like petals.

  2. says

    Thank you, the poem is beautiful – as are the poppies. I live in the beautiful Pahsimeroi Valley, in Idaho – 60 miles south of Salmon. Have a small cut flower and open pollinated flower seed business – 12 different varieties. I plant the Flanders poppy and the Shirley poppy, both known as the corn poppy. When put in a mix they are one of the first flowers to bloom with an early splash of color that lasts for a long time – my goal is to have them blooming by 4th of July with blue bachelor’s button and baby’s breath. Love your information.

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