Poppy and plumeria share symbolism on Memorial Day
In 1915, surgeon John McCrae, First Brigade, Canadian Forces Artillery, was working in a dressing station on the front line to the north of Ieper, Belgium, when he seized a moment to write down the words that came to him shortly after losing his friend Lt. Helmer to battle wounds:
"In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row ..."
His friend had been buried with only a wooden cross to mark the grave, but soon wild red poppies grew to cover the graves in that field.
This sobering poem, now famous, ends with a reminder of the haunting symbolism of the blood-red poppies:
"If you break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep
Tho' poppies grow in Flanders Field."
The poem so touched an American woman, Moira Michael, that she responded in 1918 with one of her own, "We Shall Keep the Faith," in which she promised to wear a poppy in honor of the dead. It is believed that this poem inspired many to wear poppies in remembrance of those who lost their lives in World War I.
That same year, the French YMCA secretary, a Madame Guerin, began selling silk poppies to help needy soldiers. By 1921, members of the British Legion were doing the same on Armistice Day (as this day of remembrance is called in Canada and Great Britain), and, by 1921 Australians also were pinning red poppies to their labels on Remembrance Day in November.
"In Flanders Fields" and the poppies continue to remind us of the sacrifices of fallen soldiers near and far -- even for those of us who can only remember the first and last two lines of the poem. The poppy has become a worldwide symbol of sacrifice, and a reminder of the continuing needs of our veterans and service members.
STAR-BULLETIN / 1997
A veteran, above, surveys the plaques honoring war dead at Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor. The plaques had been draped with plumeria leis for Memorial Day.
Do you remember the bright red crepe-paper poppies you bought in elementary school for a few cents to help hospitalized veterans? Those pennies, nickels and quarters do add up, and continue to help care for our veterans.
Sadly, the little red flower represents a double-edged sword in today's world. Poppies farmed in Afghanistan provide income for families who have, for generations, sold the potent sap of the plants to pharmaceutical companies for medicine. Yet, these same chemicals are also a lucrative black-market source of narcotics linked to funding the terrorists our military is fighting.
While poppies are so strongly associated with Flanders Field, on Memorial Day in Hawaii it is the fragrant plumeria lei that adds a loving, lingering ray of sunshine to the graves of those lost in battle.
Well before Memorial Day each year, calls are made for fresh plumeria -- loose flowers or leis -- by Boy Scouts and others working to place them on graves. Punchbowl Cemetery looks to be filled with a thousand hugs as the many leis draped over the graves reflect morning's first light. It's arrestingly solemn -- the sheer number of lei-draped graves. But anyone who has ever received a fragrant plumeria lei, and the kiss on the cheek that comes with it, can soon find comfort and warmth in the sight.
STAR-BULLETIN / 1950
A lei of poppies was placed on Ernie Pyle's grave at Punchbowl on Memorial Day in 1950.
The plumeria belongs to the same plant family as the oleander, periwinkle and golden-be-still. Be careful, when picking or making leis of plumeria, to avoid getting the milky sap in your eyes or on your skin. The latex-rich sap can be found in all parts of the plant but often leaks from the freshly picked flower and can be harmful, especially to the eyes of those who look up when picking blossoms from high branches.
In December 2000 the National Moment of Remembrance was passed, which suggests that at 3 p.m. today, local time, all Americans observe a moment of silence to remember the dead.
Whether you call upon a red crepe-paper poppy or the bright, sunny plumeria from your yard to remember a fallen soldier, they all say "thank you."
teaches botany, ethnobotany and environmental science at Chaminade University. Her column runs on the last Monday of the month. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org