Will you be planting poppy seeds this New Year?

I happened to catch a snatch of Gardeners’ Question Time on BBC Radio 4 in December, which stated that many garden societies in the UK will now be planting poppy seeds in preparation for this particular year.  2014 is the centenary of the outbreak of WWI and red poppies will surely be the most salutory and emotive symbols of this conflict.  Since 1918, the red poppy, a native to France, has been an acknowledgement of the fallen.  The red splashes in the green fields symbolise, in a way nothing else could, the blood spilt and the lives sacrificed.  From its conception, the Red Poppy has been intended as a non-verbal sign of ‘keeping faith with the dead’ and NOT an endorsement of war.   And nearly 100 years on, it continues to be so.

At Rememberance time last year, there emerged a furore from Canada centred around the White Poppy campaign.  The White Poppy, as a contrast to the Red Poppy,  has been in existence as a symbol of peace since 1926.  It has had a bumpy path, has never really caught on and, witness Toronto last October, continues to cause anger because people view it as a denigration of the Red Poppy campaign and therefore a denigration of the lives lost.

In my view, a white poppy is never going to work.  Yes, it is the colour of peace – the Dove of Peace is white.  But it is also the colour of surrender – the white flag; of innocence – white coffins for children; of chastity – white wedding dresses; of clinical cleanliness – ‘men in white coats’.  However, the most damaging connection is to the White Feather.  ‘The Order of the White Feather’ was established in  August 1914, at the start of WWI, by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald.  Its purpose was to enrole young women into handing out white feathers to young men not in uniform and therefore seen as unwilling to fight for their country.  The reason the feather is white goes back to the time of cock fighting where a gamecock with a white tail feather was considered to be substandard, i.e. not up to the fight.  White was now the colour of cowardice verging on degeneracy.

White lacks passion.  There is something about the red, particularly paired with its opposite complimentary colour green, that encapsulates the conflicting feelings  of hating war whilst appreciating the bravery and sacrifice of those who have put their lives on the (thin red) line.

Most of the world wants peace, but I don’t see the White Poppy catching on any time soon.


  1. Fascinating. I always find red poppies unbelievably moving – the trench warfare of the First World War was so barbaric – and I agree with you that white poppies just don’t have the right resonance. I didn’t know the history of the white feather. Interesting that for the Chinese white is a funerary colour (but they’re a culture that has certainly taken to red in a big way!).


  2. You are absolutely right about Chinese – in fact in China the term for a funeral is ‘white event’. White is a funereal colour in other cultures too; for instance Australian Aborigines paint their bodies white for funeral ceremonies and in the Hindu and Moslem religions white is worn to mourn a family member. To me, although it seems the opposite colour to the black we associate with funerals, the two colours somehow equally symbolise the emptiness of sorrow.


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