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Papaver rhoeas is an annual flower which grows across Eurasia and northern Africa.  The brilliant vermilion flower is commonly known as the red poppy, the corn poppy, or the field poppy.  This plant has an ancient and unmistakable connection to agriculture. The poppy tends to grow in ground which has been broken.  It is fairly resistant to non-chemical weed control mechanisms, and it can grow, flower, and then set seed before barley or wheat is harvested.  All of this means that field poppies were an inextricable part of early grain fields (where they were sometimes more abundant then the grain).

Even though the wildflowers are weeds, they are very beautiful weeds and the ancient Greeks were quick to give divine significance to the red blossoms. Demeter was the goddess of agriculture who legendarily presented humankind with the secrets to grain-farming (a craft which she first revealed to the demi-god Triptolemus).  Her emblem was the red poppy growing among the barley. The flower’s distinctive red with orange undertones gave its name to a color coquelicot (which is the French word for the corn poppy).  In English, the word coquelicot has been used to describe that color (which, coincidentally is one of my favorite) since the 18th century.

As noted above, the poppy sprouts up in broken ground. During World War I, artillery bombardment and trench excavation caused tremendous ground disturbance, which caused the poppies to flourish. All throughout the warm months of the conflict the flowers bloomed profusely in no-man’s land and between the trench lines.  One of the war’s most famous poems “In Flander’s Field” was a short rhymed poem in the form of a French rondeau which described the poppies blowing among the endless lines of freshly dug graves.

The armistice which ended World War I and silenced the big guns took place on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. In the years after the war, veterans from the Allied forces were honored (and the dead remembered) by the wearing of real or artificial poppies on Armistice Day. In the United States, Congress changed the name of Armistice Day into Veterans Day on 1954 in order to honor all veterans (although, naturally, in other Allied nations today remains Armistice Day or Remembrance Day).  The wearing of red poppies (which apparently started in America) has been largely supplanted by other national symbols like the yellow ribbon and Old Glory. None-the-less this is still a day we share with our allies.

This is a particularly sad and touching Veterans’ Day both because of the wars we are currently fighting in Central Asia and because, earlier in 2011 the last few field veterans of the Great War died.  There is now no one left alive who fought in World War I and saw the red poppies flowering among the mud and steel and bones of no-man’s land. Years ago it struck me forcefully that the Lost Generation was vanishing when I was in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and saw a sign explaining how the last few Armisitice maples (silver maples planted in great sweeping avenues to commemorate the end of the First World War) were being taken down and replaced with Red Oaks to commemorate September 11th.  Even mighty trees wear down. Generations die and are replaced.  New tragedies come along. However the soldiers’ vigilance and sacrifice are never over. I would like to thank all of the men and women who have served in the uniform of the United States or its allies.  If anybody deserves to have the sacred flower of the goddess of grain repurposed to memorialize their valor, it is surely them.

Wild Asphodels (photo by Paul & Pam Markwell)

Asphodels are a genus (Asphodelus) of small to mid-size herbaceous perennial flowers.   Originally native to southern and central Europe, the flowers now grow in other temperate parts of the world thanks to flower gardeners who planted them for their white to off-white to yellow flowers and their eerie grayish leaves.  These leaves have long been used to wrap burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made of cow’s milk, rennet and cream—when the asphodel leaves dried out the cheese was known to be past its prime.  The bulblike roots of asphodel are edible and were eaten by the poor during classical antiquity and the middle ages until the potato was introduced to Europe and supplanted asphodel completely.

Asphodel tenufolius

This somewhat pedestrian wildflower is one of the most famous plants connected to the Greco-Roman underworld.  Homer is the first poet (whose works still survive) to give a lengthy description of the realm of Hades and the asphodel is mentioned growing everwhere in a great field in the middle of the underworld.  To quote the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website:

Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the “Fields of Elysium,” a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.

The gray and ghostlike nature of the asphodel plant and its wistful off-white flower may have suggested something funereal to the ancient Greeks.  Or possibly the plant’s connection with the afterlife was a hand-me-down from an earlier culture.  In fact here is a learned and comprehensive scholarly essay which posits that the asphodel had pre-Greek religious significance.

Whatever its history, the Greeks also regarded the plant as sacred to Persephone/Proserpine, who is frequently portrayed wearing it or picking it, as well as to other chthonic deities.  Greeks and Romans planted asphodel on tombs both for its melancholy beauty and as a sort of food offering to the dead.  So the cemeteries of classical antiquity were lugubrious but pretty places filled with ghostly flowers.

In western literature and art asphodel remains a symbol of mourning, death, and loss.  William Carlos Williams made the plant the central focus of his poem “Asphodel, the Greeny Flower” which agonizes over the ambiguities of the next world (which seems to be a land of oblivion) juxtaposed with the burning regrets of this life.  Here is a poignant fragment:

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
		like a buttercup
			upon its branching stem-
save that it's green and wooden-
		I come, my sweet,
			to sing to you.
We lived long together
		a life filled,
			if you will,
with flowers.  So that
		I was cheered
			when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
		in hell.
			Today
I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers
		that we both loved,
				even to this poor
colorless thing-
		I saw it
			when I was a child-
little prized among the living
		but the dead see,
			asking among themselves:
What do I remember
		that was shaped
			as this thing is shaped?
while our eyes fill
		with tears.
			Of love, abiding love
it will be telling
		though too weak a wash of crimson
				colors it
to make it wholly credible.
		There is something
				something urgent
I have to say to you
		and you alone
			but it must wait
while I drink in
		the joy of your approach,
				perhaps for the last time.

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