From Ancient Greece to 1970s Flower Power, flowers have stood for peace, justice and freedom. But it’s because of a teacher from France that we wear poppies over our hearts on November 11.
There is a plethora of flowers that are associated with pacifism: The peace lily’s white blossom is said to resemble a white flag, the universal sign of surrender. Olive branches have been used as a symbol of peace since the rise of the Roman empire. To commemorate the armistice, master Impressionist Claude Monet gifted the French State his astounding “Nymphéas” (Water Lilies) series in 1918. Most recently, the sunflower, the national flower of Ukraine, has come to represent peace and reconstruction.
But it is the red corn poppy that stands out, with so many wearing one on their left lapel in remembrance of the end of the Great War, known as Armistice Day, and all wars since. But what is interesting is that it was in fact a French woman who inspired the tradition of wearing a poppy.
The Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was serving as a medical officer in Belgium when he wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields,” while mourning a fallen friend and drawing inspiration from the blood-red corn poppies that grew in the region. The poem reads in part:
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.
The idea for the Remembrance Day poppy was imagined by Madame Anna Guérin of France, a lecturer and humanitarian. Inspired by the poem, Guérin made red silk poppies and sold them in Britain to raise money for former soldiers and their families in 1921. Guérin then convinced the Great War Veterans Association of Canada to use the poppy as a symbol of remembrance while fundraising, which it first did on July 5, 1921, using fabric poppies made by wounded war veterans.
Today, of course, we wear mostly plastic versions of the poppy, but who knows, perhaps a modern-day version of Madame Guérin will bring back the French silk poppy? Here’s hoping.