Why the Poppy Flower Is Used for Military Remembrances

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By Jill Brooke

Poppies are the flowers used as a symbol around the world to remember those who died in military service.  They are often presented on graves in the form of wreaths since its circular shape represents eternity, continuity and the circle of life. However, the poppies are also worn on veterans’ lapels and often placed individually at a gravesite to represent honoring and respecting those who sacrificed their lives in military conflict.

Britain's Prince William Lays A Wreath

Photo credit: Anthony Devlin/AFP/Getty Images

Do you remember seeing Britain’s Prince William, Duke of Cambridge laying a wreath during an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France? World leaders, including French President Emmanual Macron of France and U.S.President Trump, also gathered at a gravesite in Caen, France where more than 9,390 American service members were killed in the World War II landings to pay their respects.

And when the Royal Family reunited for the annual Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph, everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Prince Charles and Prince William was wearing poppy pins.

Some have thought the flowers were popularized because of their blood-red color signifying bloodshed as a result of someone’s sacrifice to their country.

This is a logical assumption.

Poppies Signify The Promise Of Resurrection

Another interpretation from classical mythology is that the scarlet flower with its ebony interior – black is also a color of death – signifies the promise of resurrection after death. Since these ancient times,  poppies have long been used as a symbol of sleep, peace, and death.  In both Greek and Roman myths, poppies were used as offerings to the dead. Poppies were also used as emblems on tombstones to symbolize eternal sleep.

After all, opium is extracted from poppies and used as a sedative. Therefore, the added appeal of its use to represent eternal sleep prevails.

Poppies Remembrance Day

However, many history buffs credit Canadian surgeon and soldier John McCrae for popularizing its use for military remembrance ceremonies. He wrote the poem, “In Flanders Fields” during World War I at a place where poppies were plentiful and grew around gravesites.

“In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky”

McCrae was inspired to write this poem on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of a friend and fellow soldier Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. Legend has it that he didn’t even like his poem and discarded it. But his fellow soldiers, moved by the sentiments, retrieved the poem which inspired many.

Poppies And Their Cultural Reference

Poppies were a cultural reference point to many at that time. Going back to the destruction of the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, red poppies magically grew around the bodies of the fallen soldiers on what seemed like a barren land.  Poppies became an image of hope for peace with the unspoken message that sacrifice was noble for the greater good.  In late 1914, the fields of Northern France and Flanders were once again ripped open by guns blazing and fighting. Once the conflict was over, one of the only plants to grow were the poppies.

Like the perennial flower, McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields,” also spread and pollinated in magazines and the public consciousness across continents.

As a result of its immediate popularity, parts of the poem were used in efforts and appeals to recruit soldiers and raise money selling war bonds. Turns out that the poem and poppy are prominent Remembrance Day symbols throughout the Commonwealth of Nations, particularly in Canada, where “In Flanders Fields” is one of the nation’s best-known literary works. It is also very popular in the United States and cited on both Veterans Day in November and Memorial Day in May.

Among those who were moved by the poem was Moina Michael, an American professor in Georgia. She subsequently wrote her own poem in 1918 titled, “We Shall Keep the Faith.”  Her enthusiasm for the poppy as a symbol of remembrance earned her the nickname, “The Poppy Lady.”  In fact, the tireless Michael campaigned to make the poppy the internationally-recognized symbol of remembrance and welfare for war veterans.

Red Poppy Flower Remembrance

One of her strategies was to raise funds for returning veterans of World War I by selling poppies.  So while McCrae is credited for the poem, no one can create a movement alone.  Moina Michael is also credited as the founder of the Memorial Poppy in the United States.

Meanwhile, a French woman, Anna Guerin, also championed poppies to England. The Royal British Legion ordered 9 million of those poppies in 1921, for fundraising, the year the organization was founded. In fact, the following year in 1922, Major George Howson, a British army officer, established the Poppy Factory in Richmond, England to employ disabled veterans. Even now, the factory employs disabled veterans to produce the wreaths for the Royal Family and the Royal British Legion’s annual Poppy Appeal.

In fact, how cute is this picture of embroidered poppies that decorated a London street and were made this year by local residents?

Poppies As An Enduring Symbol

Since 1924, wearing poppies has been a custom in the U.S. for honoring those who sacrificed their lives for the greater good.  Just recently in 2014, the Ukrainians have also started wearing the poppy as a symbol of the victory over Nazism and as a commemoration of the victims of World War II.

Its enduring significance shows no sign of waning. When President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump gifted Queen Elizabeth II upon their arrival to Europe, the First Lady chose a Tiffany pin of a red poppy. All leaders acknowledge this tradition.

In fact, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle recently put a wreath to honor the military at their home in California.

In November 2021, Prince Harry presented the inaugural Intrepid Valor Awards to five service members, veterans and military families that says are living with the invisible wounds of war wearing a red poppy on his military jacket. His wife Meghan Markle wore a red poppy on her Carolina Herrara gown, and earlier on a black sweater for a business meeting.  The Intrepid  gala raised money for the Intrepid’s educational program for students and programs to support veterans. 

The flower will forever be associated with remembrance and the unity of what loss means and where hope can grow.

Photo Credits: Getty Images, Pixabay

Jill Brooke is a former CNN correspondent, Post columnist and editor-in-chief of Avenue and Travel Savvy magazine. She is an author and the editorial director of FPD and a contributor to Florists Review magazine. She also won the 2023 AIFD (American Institute of Floral Design.) Merit Award for showing how flowers impact history, news and culture