Friday 11 November 2011

Flowers of Remembrance

When I was little, in addition to Bonfire Night last week, I looked forward to this time of year and what we called Poppy Day. The family would sit down and watch the annual Royal Albert Hall Festival of Remembrance on tv. My Mum and Dad would make little wooden crosses with poppies on them and we’d go to the village cemetery and place them on the graves of our family members who served in the World Wars. My own generation still carries on this tradition.

The red poppy had been used in this way since 1918 when Moina Michael of the US YWCA wore a red poppy at the YWCA Overseas War Secretaries’ Conference in November that year. When the Royal British Legion was formed 90 years ago this year the red poppy was adopted by them also.

The poppy has always had an association with death and sleep. The opium poppy in particular having special significance due to its various drug derivatives. The opium-based morphine is named after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus. In lgbt culture the cult film “The Wizard of Oz” has the 4 lead characters succumbing to the sleep-inducing properties of a red poppy field.

It can be argued that symbolism of remembrance with the poppy only began in 1918. Other plants have remembrance associated with them, most notably rosemary.

There was no definitive list of flowers and their symbolic meaning until 1727 when Aubrey de la Mottraye published an account of his travels in Turkey where the “language of flowers” was well established. This language became popular in Victorian England through the letters of another Turkey traveller – Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

Born into the Pierrepont family of Nottingham Lady Mary formed a relationship in her young years with Ann Wortley. Through Ann’s brother Edward many letters expressing undying love were exchanged between the two girls. Mary was heart-broken when Anne died at the age of 21. Mary’s father then planned to marry her off to an Irish aristocrat called Clotworthy Skeffington, but wisely Mary did her best to avoid this by eloping with Ann’s brother Edward.

Edward Wortley became Ambassador to Turkey in 1717 and Lady Mary travelled with him and wrote about her experiences, including hearing about the language of flowers. Her published letters made her famous and her ideas became popular among the upper classes of society. By the Victorian period there was a huge “dictionary” of flower meanings.

Over the years the language has changed and adapted to fit the times. The symbol of the red poppy is a good example. From its original meaning of sleep and death it is now almost entirely associated with remembrance.

Going through some of the many lists of flowers and their meanings that are around today here is a short list of other Flowers of Remembrance.

China aster
pink carnation
tea rose
white periwinkle
yellow ginnia

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