'Red rags': indomitable

I don't know what it is that farmers have against the field poppy, that they have succeeded in banishing it from their cornfields. I have an astounding imag , from happily distant days when, living in Hertfordshire, I was discovering, experimentally, that I was not, by profession, a teacher. The image was of a field passed on the way to work. It has stayed in memory like an odour first breathed by a child, and rich with associations which don't fade. A dazzling spread of vermilion, extended like a lake over every particle of that wide, cultivated expanse of ground. It was a gasp of sheer color, intensely and brilliantly red.

Two days ago we drove through Hertfordshire to Cambridge (itself thick with young associations), and now the cornfields of the country are a tribute to effective farming methods -- all gold. Lovely in their own right, no doubt, but this agricultural war on the harmless poppy is obviously careless about purely visual matters, loveliness not being one of its prime goals. I'm sure I'm not the only non-farmer to feel somehow robbed.

However, papaver rhoeasm is not the sort of plant to give in entirely, and we found that some of the quite new banks verging the quite new motorway were saturated with this shameless weed. Monet or Renoir would still have thought them a wild delight to the eye (the French Impressionists surely discovered this flower as one of God's best gifts to painters). You'd think, looking at these banks, that there was no room left for any other growing thing, but another flower was mixed in, by the trillion, with the poppies -- it may have been a corn chamomile. This intermingling of red and white, and I suppose, green, was like no tapestry that ever existed, because nature really has no nicety or restraint. Given the slightest chance, nature will overdo things, run to excess , multiply.

But take an individual poppy, separated from the crazy horde (Constable did this once and made an oil sketch that is intensely alive) and you have a kind of plant that is singular and quite simple, with all the open virtues and naivete of wildflowers at their best. It has no frills or flounces, no repetition of littleness, and at all its stages -- bud, flower, seed -- it looks fresh.

With its red-cup flower, black-centered, its unfussy wire stem, its snake-head bud whose green casing is split and then discarded like a chrysalis by the emerging, crinkled moth bloom, its blue-green leaves, filigree but spare, here all told, is a plant that celebrates commonness. It isn't just a flower, it is "flower". It is the essence of what a flower is, all it needs to be -- bright, open and upward. It single face shares something with the wild English rose, infinitely more beautiful than its fulsome garden hybrics. Perhaps this is why the poppy has been nicknamed "corn-rose" and "cup-rose."

It is an irony that this ebullient little plant, just because of its ability to colonise even fields charred and devastated by war, has come to symbolize the anguish and blood of battle. It seems to me to come closer to a flag-waving celebration of peace.

It seems that down the centuries mankind has been unsure whether to fear or love poppies. Some have believed they threaten thunder and lightning, others consider them as sacred as harvest itself. Other old wives' tales have attributed a variety of good and evil effects to them, all nonsense.

But some of the playful local names given to poppies in different parts of Britain (recorded in the fascinating book by Geoffrey Grigson, "The Englishman's Flora") speak of a cheerful enough relationship of man to poppy, or, I suspect, child to poppy for to "corn rose" are added such tags as "old woman's petticoat" , "paradise lily", "redcap", "red dolly", "red soldiers", "red rags" and just plain "red weed."

Let's hope we don't discover some herbicide that will remove field poppies from road banks as well as fields. "Red rags" are not the only wildflower in Britain to be driven out of the meadows to their edges and fringes. These margins have become sanctuaries, along with road verges and railway embankments, for unvalued wildflowers, common and rare. A splendid side effect to the fact that local councils are short of funds is that they no longer mow these borders of wildness down to the roots twice a year. Poppies, of course, are by no means a threatened species, and a patch of disturbed soil, layed waste by verge cutters or road builders is just the place for them to appear. They provide the cheekiest and most irrepressible reply by nature to some of man's least attractive depredations on the countryside.

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