Most holidays and special days have certain flowers that we associate with them. Memorial Day and Veterans Day both claim the poppy.
Poppy seeds only germinate when the ground is bare and has been freshly turned. During WWI, a field full of fresh graves had produced a crop of red poppy flowers. The image of the red poppy flowers and white crosses inspired a soldier to write a poem which was published in a British magazine in 1915. The poem touched a couple of women who began making the paper poppies as a fundraiser to help widows and orphans of the fallen soldiers.
Poppy plants are also associated with the production of opium. Many people consider the opium-producing poppy and the Memorial Day poppy to be the same. One author wrongfully wrote that the same poppy that produced the narcotic also helped the victims of war.
The truth is that there are over 100 types of poppies and only three have enough opium-producing ability that they are illegal to grow. The other types of poppies shouldn't carry the stigma that the opium poppy is burdened with. They are beautiful and easy to grow. Flower colors range from purple to pink to deep red. They have all types of flower shapes. Poppies attract birds, bees, and beneficial insects. Most are annuals and are excellent at reseeding themselves.
The corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is the recognized Memorial Day poppy and is also known as the field poppy. Iceland poppies have flowers that can be up to three inches in diameter. The Oriental poppy is a perennial and has big flowers on four-foot tall stems.
Memorial Day ceremonies are much older than the Poppy Association. There are many stories as to the actual beginning of Memorial Day. There is evidence that organized women's groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War. Waterloo, New York, was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966.
Memorial Day was first officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868, by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, and was first observed on May 30, 1868. Flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I.
Several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: Jan. 19 in Texas; April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee.
Roger Williams is an agriculture educator for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in Cherokee County.