Sunday, 24 April 2011

"The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance" (Eric Bogle)

New Zealand servicemen's graves, Karori, Wellington

In New Zealand and Australia, we remember the dead of World Wars 1 & 2 on ANZAC day, 25 April.  Gallipoli was the battle that joined our countries at the hip, and forged a close relationship that today sees us helping each other through devastating earthquakes, floods, and bush fires.

My grandfather, Donald Collins, wasn't an ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) because, like all my ancestors, he lived in Britain.  He served in the British Army, King's Liverpool Regiment 1st/5th Battalion, which fought at Givenchy and the Somme.  He survived the war, but he died of erysipelas in 1921 (probably not war-related), some years before the discovery of antibiotics that would easily have saved his life.

Botanically, World War 1 is symbolised by the Flanders poppy, Papaver rhoeas.  Poppies, with their prodigious seed production and rapid growth, were well suited to colonise the bare ground of the battlefields at the Somme, Ypres, and Paschendaele.  The winter mud, churned up by the tanks, the shell bursts, and the tramp of feet and hooves, fertilised with the blood of men and horses, was ready in the spring for the germination of millions of seeds.
Papaver rhoeas, Sete, France.

So the poppy is a symbol widely used in poetry and songs as the emblem of ANZAC day in Australasia and Remembrance Day (Nov 11) in the UK and other countries.

There's not an equivalent plant for World War 2, but I like the hardy weeds that sprang up on the bomb sites in London.  Even with Christchurch in ruins from the Feb 22 earthquake, and the daily aftershocks, it's hard for New Zealanders to imagine living in London and other European cities as the bombs rained down night after night.  Among these special plants is rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium), which relishes such disturbed sites and is still widespread on waste land in Europe.

Galinsoga parviflora, Otari, NZ.
But I prefer an unassuming weedy member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) called Galinsoga parviflora.  It's a common weed of disturbed ground in many parts of the world, including here in New Zealand, although it's originally from South America.  One funny thing about it, with a wartime link, is its common name: gallant soldier.  It's easy to imagine this name is derived from a mis-hearing of its scientific name:

"'Ere Flo,  wossname of this weed then?"

"Well, I heard some gent called it somefink like gallant soldier!"

However, I'd be interested to know if this name was in use before the war, because that's its common name in the US as well as in Britain.

Weeds are supreme opportunists.  By producing seeds in huge numbers, they're well suited to colonise disturbed ground.  Poppies, willowherbs, and Galinsoga had all the right attributes to make the most of the battlefields, and in doing so they brought a little beauty and new life to the devastated waste lands of human folly, bigotry, intolerance, and greed.

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