Gardening: In Flanders fields the poppies grow...
- Credit: AP
At this time of year, the leaves are all falling from the trees, and although I love the myriad of colours that carpet the floor, the colour that I most associate with November is red.
For as long as I can remember, my mum has collected for the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal. It has always been a charity that I have supported, and after the loss in action of someone I knew at school, it is even more at the forefront of my mind. This year, with the centenary of the start of the First World War, the emblem of the poppy has been streamed across the media even more than usual, and The Poppies at The Tower of London have been a real phenomenon. The installation is the work of ceramic artist Paul Cummins, and setting by stage designer Tom Piper. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red includes one ceramic poppy for every life lost during the First World War. The scale of it is quite astounding, and the tragedy that it representing is totally heartbreaking.
Poppies being a particularly hardy plant, being able to grow in the battle-torn fields of Belgium and France following the war, they soon became an enduring symbol of loss, and remembrance due initially to a poem written by Colonel John McRae, a Canadian doctor serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915. The red of their petals was of course a stark reminder of the blood that had been shed on both sides.
The first time a poppy was worn as a symbol of remembrance was in fact on 9th November 1918 two days before the war ended; at a meeting of 25 YMCA workers one of the attendees (Moina Mitchell) sent out for 25 poppies so that all could wear one.
The first ever Poppy Day was held on 11th November 1921, when the poppies were obtained from a French organisation, and the proceeds from the sale of them were put towards helping children who lived in the areas that had been ravaged by the war. Since 1922, a factory employing disabled ex-servicemen has produced the poppies. Although there are many other emblems and tokens to show support for various charities, the Poppy seems to have been the most enduring, and the most easily recognised of them all. I can’t imagine that this will ever change, with current wars raging across the world, the need to remember becomes greater, rather than fading.
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Flowers have long been associated with remembrance, and not just the poppy. Lillies are often seen in churches at funerals, and at Easter time especially. The Victorians had a particular interest in the language of flowers, and the meaning behind the giving of different types of flowers. It is perhaps due to this that the generation who lived after The Great War were so quick to take on the symbolism of the poppy. Forget-me-nots are another flower commonly associated with remembering, but of course none have the widespread meaning that the poppy has.
Although I have always associated poppies with remembrance, the installation at the Tower of London has made me think about why we so often use flowers to mark occasions. Flowers are so often sent to funerals - various wreaths and floral tributes of all different kinds are given to show the loss or a certain memory that the mourner wants to depict with flowers - perhaps something that the deceased has particularly enjoyed during life. It is increasingly common practice for flowers to be left at sites of fatal accidents and other deaths
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It is not just for sad reasons that we use flowers to mark special events though - the flowers for a wedding are often one of the main priorities during the planning process, with flowers being sourced from all over the world to be “just right”. Guests at weddings always want to get a good look at the bridal bouquets, and the flowers are often heavily featured in the photographs.
I think the reason for this, is because people like to associate beautiful flowers with important moments in their lives. It might be their favourite flowers, or maybe something unusual, or difficult to get hold of, used to mark a special occasion, but flowers seem to always be there for the main significant occasions in our lives, and I imagine they will long continue to.
Whilst different flowers have different associations/meanings in themselves, the actual flower may not be needed as the scent alone may be enough to trigger memories.
Focus on poppies:
* Poppies come in a variety of different colours, they range from red, orange and yellow, to blue (Mecanopsis being a notable example), and some are lovely mixtures of pink and white.
* Well known for their delicate, almost onion-skin-thin petals, they strike a very beautiful shape in a border of other flowers* Fields of poppies on their own are incredibly impactful, and are grown in some countries for the opium that they are harvested for.
* The red poppy is perhaps the best recognised, and the favourite of many. Its simplicity, and the striking contrast of the dark black centre, with the bright red petals, is very beautiful.
Things to do in your garden this month:
* Picking up leaves - what feels like a completely unending task, but it makes a huge difference to the look of the garden if you can face going out into the cold to do it! Obviously you can use the leaves in your compost - they should rot down nicely.
* Within the next week or so, you might think about mowing any lawns for the last time this year. If you can get a dry day, it’s a good idea to give the lawn one last trim before leaving it for the winter. If you haven’t picked up your leaves - going over any that have fallen on the lawn is a fairly quick and easy way of getting them all up!
*If you haven’t yet got your spring bulbs in - time is fading fast! Now that the nights are drawing in, your spring bulbs really want to be tucked up in the garden, before the really cold nights come. There is still time to get them in, so long as you do it within the next couple of weeks. The sooner they are in, the more likely they are to survive the frosts.
If you are growing bulbs in pots for Christmas flowering, they should be brought out into the light and kept watered as necessary. Hyacynth bulbs should have already started to produce leaves; Paper white daffodils should be planted 6 weeks before the flowers are wanted.