Holidays & Occasions

The History of Memorial Day Poppies

Field of red poppies with planes flying overhead

If there’s one flower that’s associated with Memorial Day, it’s the poppy. These Memorial Day flowers first became tied to this holiday during the World War I era, and they still can be found throughout Memorial Day parades and celebrations. We’re going to dive into this symbolic and delicate flower to help you get ready for the unofficial start of summer.

Why Is the Poppy Tied to Memorial Day?

Memorial Day is a time to remember those who lost their lives while serving in the military. While these loved ones may be gone from the Earth, their memories and impact lives on. People often use the poppy to symbolize this new life after death.

It all started when Canadian soldier John McCrae lost his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. After Helmer’s death, McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields.

The opening verse of this 1915 poem reads:

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.

Moina Michael—Aka The Poppy Lady

A few years after McCrae wrote this poem, US teacher Moina Michael used it as inspiration for her own poem We Shall Keep the Faith in which she talked about wearing poppies to remember those lost in Flanders Field. Michael also started a campaign to use the poppy as a symbol of remembrance of those lost in battle. The American Legion approved this request in 1920, and people across the US began wearing poppies to honor fallen soldiers.

Here’s the opening of Michaels’ poem:

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;

More About Michaels’ Work

In 1920, The American Legion, a corporation formed by WWI Veterans in Paris, approved Michaels’ request, and soon after, others began to wear poppies to honor the lives lost in the war.

After World War I, all countries that had fought in WWI, set aside a day of remembrance on November 11– Veterans Day in the US, Remembrance or Armistice Day in the UK. But, since we also have Memorial Day here in the States, the flower has been adopted as a symbol of that holiday as well.

Decoration Day Becomes Memorial Day

In 1865; the federal government started creating military cemeteries to honor soldiers who fought for the Union Army. Women and survivors would decorate these graves as a way to honor those lives. They began to call this Decoration Day.

After Moina Michael’s push for the poppy, the tradition of decorating soldiers’ graves merged with our existing Memorial Day traditions. Veterans’ groups began adopting the poppy as a way to bring in funds—over the past 90 years, the flowers have been sold as a way of raising funds for veterans’ issues.

Types of Poppies

While the red poppy is traditionally tied to Memorial Day, there are lots of other poppies available today. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the most popular varieties.

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica): These are the poppies that turn western hillsides into painted landscapes. After the first warm spring rain, the seeds germinate and draw in crowds from across the world.

Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale): When you think of a red poppy, you’re probably imagining the Oriental poppy. This flower is native to Southern Eurasia, but it can be found blooming in gardens throughout the United States.

Flanders Poppy (Papaver rhoeas): This is the poppy that grew throughout battlefields in Europe and inspired In Flanders Field. The popular poppy cultivar the Shirley poppy is a type of Flanders Poppy.

Where Can I See Wild Poppy Fields?

Each spring, rugged mountains and seaside hillsides become covered with yellow and orange flowers. If you want to get in on the poppy-viewing action, check out these places.

When you’re looking at the blooms, be a responsible person: stay on the trails and pack out all your trash. These flowers and their habitat are worth protecting!

  • Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve (Los Angeles County, CA)
  • Walker Canyon near Lake Elsinore (Riverside County, CA)
  • Channel Islands National Park (Santa Barbara & Ventura County, CA)
  • Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (San Diego County, CA)

FAQ

Are Poppies Easy to Grow?

In most of the United States, poppies are easy to grow. Sprinkle some seeds, water, and watch them bloom! Poppies do self-seed, so remove their seed heads or get ready for a poppy field.

Are Poppies Toxic?

Most types of poppies are mildly toxic to dogs, cats, and children. If you notice they’ve consumed poppies, contact a vet or doctor.

Are Poppies Good Gifts?

Yes! While poppies are often tied to Memorial Day, they’re also appropriate for other flower-giving holidays. If you’re worried about sending the wrong message, opt for pink or yellow flowers rather than red blooms.

What Months Are Associated with the Poppy?

Besides Memorial Day, poppies are also one of August’s birth month flowers, along with the gladiolus.

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