Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Remembrance

Poppy seeds need light to germinate, so every time the soil is cultivated buried seeds that are brought to the surface germinate and produce a blaze of scarlet flowers. Every year for the last 25 years, since we moved into our house, unsown corn poppies have flowered in the vegetable garden. This year's crop has now set seed, leaving these elegant little pepperpot-like seed capules - delightful objects of natural sculpture - that are the last reminder of the vivid splashes of flowers that graced the potato patch back in July. They've shaken their seeds out of the pores around the rim and added to the seemingly inexhausible seed bank in the soil.
















Earlier this week I came across a remarkable account of the mass- flowering of poppies, in an obscure journal called the Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, published by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in 1917. The article is called The Flora of the Somme Battlefield, written by someone who simply signed themselves with the initials A.W.H. It's an account of a visit to the battlefield in the summer that followed the great battle of summer and autumn 1916. It must surely be one of the most poignant botanical accounts ever written, and I can do no better than to quote the author's own words.





















Image: The effect of artillery bombardment - Passchendaele village, before and after the battle of 1917. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Passchendaele

"Villages, roads, open country, and woodland have been destroyed and ploughed up again and again by shells, with the result that hardly a level spot can be found. The surface of the ground is everywhere more-or-less pitted with shell-holes of varying size and depth, and can best be imitated by arranging innumerable cups and basins as closely together as possible so that their rims shall reach a general level. It is only on the rims of the shell holes that walking is possible".

"Looking over the devastated country from the Bapaume Road one saw only a vast expanse of weeds of cultivation which so completely covered the ground and dominated the landscape that all appeared to be a level surface. In July poppies predominated, and the sheet of colour as far as the eye could see was superb; a blaze of scarlet unbroken by tree or hedgerow".

"Charlock occurred in broad patches ....... though masked by the taller poppies. Numerous small patches were, however, conspicuous and these usually marked the more recently dug graves of men buried where they had fallen. No more moving sight can be imagined than this great expanse of open country gorgeous in its display of colour, dotted over with half-hidden white crosses of the dead. In no British cemetery, large or small, however beautiful of impressive it may be, can the same sentiments be evoked or feelings so deeply stirred. Nowhere, I imagine, can the magnitude of the struggle be better appreciated than in this peaceful, poppy-covered battlefield hallowed by its many scattered crossses."
A.W.H (1917) The Flora of the Somme Battlefield. Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, Royal Botanic Garden , Kew Nos. 9 & 10, 1917, pp. 297-300.

18 comments:

  1. Wow, a very moving piece... the way seeds lay dormant in the earth for years and then pop up if the earth is disturbed, fascinates me. It got me wondering just HOW old some of the poppy seeds might have been that got stirred up by bombs during the battle.....

    I also love the seed pods - great forms for drawing and they make great, quiet rattles if you catch them before the seeds pop out!

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  2. Thank you for sharing this very moving post with your readers.

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  3. A lovely post Phil, and so poignant. To see all the white crosses totally surrounded by the bright red poppies must have been a sad yet stunning sight.

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  4. Hi Phil. What a pity that such a great piece of documentary writing has ended up lost in an inaccessible journal. It surely deserves to be more widely known and published. Allan

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  5. Hi Valerianna, Some seeds can remain viable for decades if they are buried .... which I guess is why, however many weeds I pull up in my garden, plenty more appear!

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  6. Hi lotusleaf, poppies will be forever associated with the WW1 battlefields in France...

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  7. Hi Wilma, interestingly much of the rest of the paper that it came from is a fairly dispassionate account of the flora, with lists of species, and some thoughts on how that pock-marked land might be restored after the war...

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  8. Certainly must have been Lesley...

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  9. Hi Nyctalus, I've managed to identify the author, who was none other than Arthur William Hill, who rose to become director of Kew in 1922 - there's an interesting biography of him at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_William_Hill

    The same journal has all sorts of other interesting papers, including one on the effect of shell-fire on trees. It's available on JSTOR with volumes dating back to 1887 - covering the great age of Imperial Botany.

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  10. He looks fearsome. But those were clearly the days to be a botanist - with the Empire Marketing Board (!)ready and willing to throw money at you to travel all over the world. Boy how things have changed.

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  11. Could you please tweet this or publicise it I n some way before August 4th this year so many people may read it.

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    1. I certainly will, Anne - I'll do it as soon as this year's poppies begin to flower

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  12. Thank you so much. My father was killed in 1940 in France in WW2 so very sad to contemplate the loss of life. I grown masses of poppies in my garden, but very few red ones flower. Strange isn't it? I grow the oriental ones but red remembrance ones do not flower for me it seems.

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    1. Sad to learn about your father's death Anne. Wild poppy germination is sporadic - they need to be brought to the surface to germinate - can't germinate in darkness

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  13. To me, the poppies of the Somme, Flanders Field, other battlefields speak to the evils of war as strongly as just about anything. When they pop up here and there in my yard, I always think of all the needlessly dead--so many so young.

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    1. Me too. Indelible symbolism ...

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