Poppies: Lest we forget

It’s amazing just how much symbolism can be attached to plants without most us even being particularly aware of it.

 

Take the poppy, for instance. The first thing that springs to mind for many of us, particularly around Remembrance Day on 11 November, is the little paper flower sold by The Royal British Legion on street corners. The charity’s aim in selling it is to raise money to look after serving and ex-servicemen and women plus dependents in need of financial and other support – an activity that it’s been involved in since 1921.

 

But while the poppy may be a motif that we all know, it wasn’t actually the UK that first appropriated it as an emblem of remembrance/the fallen, hope/rebirth, war/death (delete as applicable). It was in fact one Moina Michael, a US-based professor at the University of Georgia who began making and selling a silk version of the flowers after war had ended in 1918 to raise money for wounded armed forces’ veterans.

 

She had read and been moved by the now famous First World War poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ written by Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, after it was printed anonymously in the UK’s Punch magazine and reprinted around the world. Although up for debate, it is most commonly held that McCrae wrote the work on losing a friend in Ypres in Belgium while tending to the sick, after seeing a carpet of beautiful corn poppies growing in the churned mud of combat-scarred fields.

Poppy field
Poppy field

As apt coincidence would have it, blood red poppies were one of the few plants resilient enough to grow in the otherwise barren battlefields, representing in the process nature’s endless cycle of birth, life, death and renewal. And so these simple but poignant flowers came to represent the ultimate sacrifice made by those who perished in what US President Woodrow Wilson had idealistically named the “war to end all wars” – as well as the seemingly endless conflicts that have, unfortunately, followed since.

 

Funnily enough though, despite being such a poignant emblem for many Brits, the now iconic red poppy that was assigned its meaning by a Canadian and marketed by an American, was actually first brought to our shores via a Frenchwoman, Anna Guerin. She had worked with Moina Michael in the US and persuaded Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, founder and president of the British Legion, to adopt the flower as the organisation’s symbol – which on recognising its fundraising potential, he duly did.

 

But that is not to say the poppy hasn’t been without its critics. While for some the flower is all about family memories and the sacrifice of venerated ancestors, for others it is a symbol of death and support for war, of British nationalism, of oppression, abuse and atonement still to be made.

 

So it isn’t to everyone’s taste – despite the pressure to conform and wear one, particularly among those in the public eye. This scenario has led to widespread claims of “poppy fascism”, something you’d have thought was the last thing our late warriors would have wanted.

 

Political symbol?

 

So given the mixed feelings about the emblem, which like everything else these days seems to split the country, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the poppy, which has been classed as a political symbol by international football association FIFA, has been banned for use on the pitch.

 

The matter so incensed the English and Scottish football associations though that they chose to defy the ruling. Sending their teams out wearing black armbands embellished with the forbidden image on Armistice (Remembrance or Poppy) Day anyway, they vowed to contest the likely fine.

 

But it’s a testament to just how important these everyday symbols unconsciously are to all of us that, even in today’s prosaic age, wearing an apparently harmless flower can still cause so much angst. Interestingly though, the symbolic meaning of poppies has changed little throughout the ages. Often associated with ephemeral pleasures, sleep and oblivion, they have also been emblematic of new life and bloodshed since Ancient Egypt.

 

One of the most popular garden plants of the time along with cornflowers and mandrakes, in a culture that held to the Hermetic tenet “As above, so below” (because everything is interconnected, what you do as an individual will affect the heavenly spheres too and vice versa), they were also used in funereal tributes to the dead who, after a suitable rest, would be resurrected in the next life.

Demeter
Demeter

But the poppy was no less symbolic in Ancient Greece. At that time, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and harvest, had her beautiful daughter Persephone stolen by Hades, the god of the dead and the underworld, while out gathering flowers. Demeter, who was grief-stricken, searched for her daughter in vain, but as her unhappiness mounted, the crops began to suffer.

 

So to ease her pain and help lull her to sleep, poppies started growing at her feet. In fact, the Greek name for the flower to this day is still ‘nepenthes’, which means ‘potent destroyer of grief’.

 

While Demeter slept, Zeus, god of the sky and king of the gods living on Mount Olympus, visited Hades and persuaded him to allow Persephone to return to earth from the underworld for two thirds of the year. During that time, she would live with her mother, who would make the fields fertile again. But on going back to the underworld at the end of summer, the earth would grow cold and barren again reflecting Demeter’s winter grief.

 

So in this way, poppies came to be associated with regeneration, activity after sleep and the renewal of life, while their abundant seed heads represented fertility and the gift of life. Which is all very apt really – whether you celebrate Poppy Day or not.

 

 

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Urban foraging: Food that’s wild and free

Being a bit of a hippy at heart, I’ve really quite fancied the idea of doing some proper foraging for a while now.

 

On the one hand, if Armageddon were to strike, I’m sure being able to identify which plants are edible and which are likely to kill us off would be a fairly useful skill to have.

 

But on the other, it’s just a lovely, satisfying thing to do – to roam around in nature and truly know what it is you’re communing with at every level. In other words, being familiar with the culinary use of your chosen shrub or flower, its medicinal purpose and even its spiritual meaning, as they all have one. So it’s about getting to know the beautiful, green world around you and truly being at home and feeling part of it.

 

The most amazing foragers I’ve come across, it must be said though, are the Iban, a tribal people who live in the rainforest in Sarawak in the Malaysian part of Borneo. My Beloved and I went on holiday there a dozen or so years ago before the destruction of the forests by loggers and palm oil producers really started taking hold.

Iban longhouse
Iban longhouse

Sarawak at that time was known to be one of the six most biodiverse regions in the world and, amazingly, a hectare of rainforest there traditionally had more tree species in it than all of the European countries put together – until they started being ripped up to plant palm oil monocultures, that is, in order to feed the developed world’s apparently insatiable lust for the stuff.

 

Palm oil, it turns out, is a key ingredient in nearly half of all our mass-produced goods, ranging from cosmetics and toothpaste to cakes and sweets and we seem just as dependent on it as we are on black gold – and at a similar cost to the environment too.

 

Anyway, while we were in Borneo, we were lucky enough to spend a couple of nights in a longhouse with the Iban people in order to find out a bit more about where and how they lived. One fascinating morning, we went out on a rainforest walk with a guide who showed us plants to cure every kind of ailment, including one thought to have potential in the fight against AIDS.

 

But even more amazing was a canoe trip upstream into the rainforest. On stopping the boat at some apparently random spot, an Iban man threw a jala (throw-net) into the river and ended up with an impressive enough catch of pretty silver fish to feed our little party for both lunch and dinner.

 

Then on disembarking, our hosts started poking around in the fecund undergrowth and began pulling up what I would have sworn was a bunch of weeds, but which turned out to be the most delicious savoury accompaniment to our meal. This was cooked together with the fish in long bamboo poles buried in a hastily dug out pit by the water’s edge. It was gorgeous – and all the better for being devoured outdoors.

 

So suitably inspired on returning to the UK, I bought myself a “Food For Free” guidebook and dragged my Beloved out for a couple of Sundays on the trot to see what we could find.

 

To forage or not to forage?

 

I even did a foraging course in deepest Essex in a bid to get up close and personal with the help of a guide rather than simply try to work things out from a book. Sadly though, I could barely hear a word of what was said, let alone get near enough to spot the various plants under scrutiny as there were just too many people in the group. The only thing I gained from the experience, in fact, was a rather nice nettle soup at the end.

 

And so it all kind of fizzled out – until the end of last year, that is, when my parents asked what I’d like for Christmas. And it struck me that what I’d really like to do was go foraging with an expert again as a way of sparking a somewhat more sustained interest.

 

So one short Google search later and I’d unearthed Robin Harford, who seemed to come highly recommended – and with good reason. His enthusiasm and obvious passion for his subject proved infectious – despite the bitingly cold wind gusting through the somewhat desolate and deprived environs of Westbourne Park where our adventure took place.

 

Although Robin offers foraging courses up and down the country in plenty of rural hotspots, I’d been intrigued by the thought of what he might be able to conjure up in the great metropolis of London and so had signed up for a morning’s session there instead.

Westbourne Park
Westbourne Park

And I wasn’t disappointed. Although somewhat less than prepossessing at first glance, the Park proved to offer a veritable cornucopia of wild food that most of us, bar a few dogs, would simply pass by and not even notice. Traversing from one end to the other, we uncovered everything from chickweed (salad greens) and ransoms (wild garlic) to the flowers of Japanese ornamental quince (for salads and decoration).

 

It was just a pity that some of the residents of the dreary and alienating high-rise tower blocks didn’t get a chance to join us too as such nutritious free-of-charge additions to their diet might have proved welcome. One for Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food healthy cooking gang to think about maybe.

 

Or maybe not, if the likes of Bristol City Council has its way. Because the Council is proposing a series of 34 new by-laws to cover the 212 parks and green spaces around the town that, it is feared, would effectively put paid to foraging in the area – and possibly elsewhere if other local authorities follow suit.

 

The by-laws, which were put out to a consultation that ended on 20 March this year, include a ban on removing “the whole or any part of any plant, shrub or tree”, a stricture that could mean traditional activities such as blackberry-picking, scrumping apples and even pulling mushrooms are effectively outlawed.

 

Although the Council insisted that it was not trying to do any such thing, it also pointed out that it had received more than 3,000 complaints about “nuisance in parks” between 2011 and 2013 and so was trying to protect plants from damage as a result.

 

The problem is that, while it undoubtedly means well, a failure to think through the implications of its proposals in a thorough and careful fashion could have serious ramifications for us all.