Today we remember that in 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Armistice went into effect, ending World War I. In England and Canada, the scarlet poppy has become the symbol of remembrance for all veterans; in France, the blue Cornflower represents memory and solidarity with all the victims of war. Both flowers are created out of paper and cloth by the many thousand, sold for charity, and worn on the lapel on November 11. But why were these particular varieties of flowers selected?
The poppy comes from a poem written in 1915, in a field hospital in Ypres where a young Canadian doctor and artillery gunner, Major John McCrae, had just buried a dear friend. It was early May, and McCrae noticed that wild poppies were blooming by the thousand among the soldiers’ graves in nearby Flanders Fields. The poppies he saw were undoubtedly Papaver rhoeas, the annual Corn Poppy that thrives (and is often considered a weed) in ploughed fields. In today’s gardens, cultivars of Papaver rhoeas are a welcome presence, their flowers larger and more colorful than ever.
The Common Cornflower that became Bleuet de France is Centaurea cyanara. Like the Corn Poppy, it volunteers in freshly-turned soil. The word “Bleuet” became a nickname for young French soldiers who joined the war after 1915, when the official uniform changed from red trousers to blue — the color of the Common Cornflower. Today American gardens often feature the perennial cousin of the Common Cornflower: Centaurea montana.