— Lt. Col. John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields,” 1915
During World War I, Canadian physician and poet John McCrae fought in the Second Battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium, where the Germans launched one of the first chemical attacks in war history.
A close friend of McCrae’s died during the battle and, while performing his comrade’s burial service, McCrae described how brightly colored field poppies grew around his grave. The next day, McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” while sitting in the back of an ambulance waiting for more wounded soldiers to arrive.
After the war, red poppies were worn to honor the fallen soldiers. In time, poppies became the American Legion’s official symbol of remembrance. Paper poppies are still sold around Memorial Day to raise money for disabled veterans.
The flowers in Flanders fields were annual corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas); however, I have perennial Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) growing in my garden. The orange-red petals that spread into 6-inch cups look like crepe paper, and their bright color contrasts beautifully with dark purple centers covered with velvety stamens (see my picture of a newly opened Oriental poppy on my blog).
I get to enjoy my Oriental poppies only briefly at this time every year. Invariably, the flowers open just when one of the last spring rains blows through the valley (like the storm that swept through Wednesday night). The wind leaves the fragile flowers in tatters, and I always feel sad to see their lives cut short.
Yet, Oriental poppy plants are resilient and long lasting. We inherited a row of poppies in our front yard when we bought our house nine years ago, and the poppies are still growing strong and multiplying on their own. In fact, they require little care other than adding a bit of compost in early spring to well-draining soil.
The poppies positioned in full sunlight bloom best, but those that are partially shaded by our Japanese maples bloom a little later, extending our poppy season.
By the time the summer heat arrives, poppy plants go dormant and their coarse, thistle-like leaves die back. I remove the dead foliage but keep the flower stalks up to enjoy the interesting seedpods. When the weather cools in fall, a hairy rosette of new growth emerges to overwinter in the garden.
I don’t mulch my overwintering poppies because the roots may rot if the soil stays too wet. When the plants are dormant is the best time to divide poppies by carefully digging up the taproot and transplanting it about 3 inches below the soil surface, spacing each bare root plant 2 feet apart.
By the way, my Oriental poppies bloom around the same time as the much longer-lasting California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). The bright orange and yellow annuals are California’s state flower, but they are ubiquitous in late spring and early summer throughout Southern Oregon.
California poppies are prolific self-seeders. My neighbors grow them, and I always welcome the few that migrate into my yard. They become companions for the more fragile Oriental poppies, reminding me of the last verse of McCrae’s poem:
“Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If you break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.