Many of our native plant species have deep ties with symbolism, but arguably, none more-so than the Common or Field poppy, Paparver rhoeas.
The Common poppy has been an emblem of blood and new life since Ancient Egyptian times. However, perhaps in Europe its most significant association in recent history is from the aftermath of Flanders Fields. It is a symbol of those poppies that are worn by many people on November 11th (also known as Remembrance Sunday) each year. The majority of flowers in the wild are blood red in colour, but white and pale pink colour morphs are also found. Each flower only lasts a short time and sheds its petals after one day. Condition dependent, a vigorous plant can produce more than 400 flowers in succession during the summer. A seed can lie dormant for 80 years in the soil before germinating, ensuring that the plants can grow even if conditions become unsuitable for extended periods.
Following soil disturbance, such as agricultural tilling or war, the plants grow quickly, and the species are often considered ‘weeds’, as they’re prone to popping up where they’re not wanted. In her book, “The Folklore of Plants”, Margaret Baker states, “Poppy, the memorial flower, springs up quickly after soil disturbance, sometimes within twenty-four hours. When the field of Waterloo was ploughed, millions of scarlet poppies grew just as they would one hundred years later in Flanders after the First World War.
These days, the poppies that once carpeted Flander’s fields are on the decline. In December 2014, the British Ecological Society released a press release on how, 100 years on from the end of the First World War, poppies are disappearing from the former battle fields of northern France and Belgian Flanders.
Research found that the overall plant biodiversity in northern France and Belgian Flanders has increased during the past 100 years. Converse to initial presumption this increase in biodiversity is not necessarily a good thing, as local environments become increasing globalised and homogenised as invasive species arrive. More diverse, specialised species are becoming extinct. Habitat destruction, urban development, and the increasing intensification of agriculture have also both had their roles to play as our populations demands increase.
“This study highlights the homogenisation of the natural and semi-natural habitats around the world. Species loss occurs mainly in rare habitats, while immigrating species are mainly cosmopolitan species that do not necessarily replace the complex ecological interactions of species that were lost,” says Dr Hautekèete, who lead a study in plant diversity at the University of Lille.
She continues: “We studied the dynamics of changes over one century. We do not know the consequences of introducing new species to these ecosystems. A short-term increase in biodiversity could be followed by a long-term decrease, which may cause ecosystems to stop working properly.”
“An increase in regional species richness hides a worldwide homogenisation of habitats and we must take this into account when we are assessing the health of our ecosystems.”
Biodiversity must be considered about more than simply counting the total number of species in a given habitat. Ecologists must be concerned about the functional diversity and the ecological role of species. Identifying the sources of invasive non-native plant species and how climate change will contribute to their changing range is crucial to understanding our native species, and working out whether the Flanders poppy-fields will soon become a figment of history, instead of a reminder of it.
Did you know? Poppy badges are now used to support a number of causes.
Whilst the most famous is the red poppy, both white and purple poppies have also taken on symbolism over the years.
The Red Poppy first arose when an American academic, Moina Michael, was inspired by McCrae’s poem, “In Flander’s Fields”, to make and sell red silk poppies which were then brought to Britain by Anna Guérin, a representative of the French YMCA Secretariat. The (Royal) British Legion, forming in 1921, ordered 9 million of the poppies which were sold on 11 November that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately and the first ever ‘Poppy Appeal’ raised over £106,000, this is equivalent to over £3.6 million today, which was used to help WW1 veterans with employment, and housing etc. The Poppy Appeal has been running strong ever since and is used to provide tailored support and funding to thousands of ex-Servicemen and women as well as other vital services in advice, employment, mobility, respite, housing and mental health support.
The White Poppy was first introduced by the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1933 and was intended as a lasting symbol for peace and an end to all wars. Whilst it was never intended to offend the memory of those who died in the Great War, many veterans felt that its significance undermined their contribution and the lasting meaning of the red poppy. The seriousness of this issue that some women lost their jobs in the 1930s for wearing white poppies. The White Poppy Appeal is now run by the Peace Pledge Union and funds raised from their sale go towards their education programmes in raising awareness of topics such as Roots of Conflict, Conscientious Objection in WW1, Genocide, War and Peace in World Religions, People for Peace, Non-violence in WW2, Peace Memorials, Remembrance and much more.
The Purple Poppy (albeit not a natural colour-morph) currently run by Murphy’s Army, a charity which reunites lost and stolen pets with their owners – launched its first purple poppy campaign in 2016 to pay tribute, ‘to the many animals lost in service, and to those who serve us today’.