My Favourite Weed

Apart from being the best friend of Bill and Ben, The Flower Pot Men, according to the dictionary, a weed is an "unwanted plant". But surely this is entirely open for interpretation and the notion of "unwanted" must lie in the eye of the beholder?

Such ponderings entertained my under-used mind today when, as I drove to the local sandwich shop for my daily "broodje tonijn" (tuna sandwich), I spied the first poppies of spring swaying in the gentle breeze at the side of the road.

As weeds go, the poppy would have to be one of my favourite - not that I've actually given the matter much thought you understand - but if I was to draw up a list of my favourite weeds, the poppy would be right up there with my other favourite weed - Super Skunk. *ahem*

Flanders, the northern, Dutch-speaking region of Belgium where I currently reside, can be described with many terms – “breathtaking scenery”, “picturesque vistas” and “mountainous, rolling countryside” are all terms of phrase that would most definitely NOT be used; “flat”, “dull”, “densely populated”, “one big industrial zone” and “a slow-moving traffic jam” are all terms of phrase that would be a lot more appropriate.

Let's face it folks - and I'm sure the Belgian readers out there would have to agree - when it comes to scenery, this part of Belgium most definitely IS boring.

Take the Kempen - the supposedly scenic part of Flanders - which is described on Wikipedia as "a moor of swamp and sandy peat, encompassing the east of Antwerp province, and a part of Limburg province in Belgium, a former coal-producing region ….. now being rendered fertile by irrigation."

Doesn't exactly inspire you to pack your wife and kids into the Hi-ace van and head off there for a picnic, does it?

Still - I suppose there's no danger of busloads of Japanese tourists arriving on your doorstep uninvited.

Although don't be getting too complacent - you can never be too sure – those guys are mad about taking photographs of just about anything. Believe me, I've witnessed them going around Frankfurt's business quarter enthusiastically taking pictures of endless dull, grey buildings, so who would bet against them taking an interest in a swampy bog-land that once existed as a slag-heap and is now "being rendered fertile by irrigation"??

But I digress.

The point I want to make is that, in this sort of environment, you have to get your visual kicks out of the somewhat less spectacular. Take the aforementioned humble poppy for example; or to be more precise - The Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas).

At this time of year, the fields of Flanders - or at least the central reservations of motorways, the grass verges at the side of busy roads, or whatever little handkerchief-size plots of grass they are lucky enough to find to grow on - become awash with them, turning even the most non-descript piece of land into a hypnotic, swaying, sea of red, gently dancing to the rhythm of the summer breeze.

Or more likely being violently tossed around in the violent slip stream of a speeding juggernaut.

It’s also the national flower of Belgium - not that many of our Belgian cousins actually know that. But then again – just how many Belgians do you know that can actually sing their national anthem? In French, Dutch or German?

Of course to the ex-pats amongst us, the humble poppy means a lot more to us - serving as a symbolic reminder of those service men and women that lost their lives on battle fields fighting for our countries in violent conflict that most of us (fortunately) can only imagine as to what they were like.

In his poem “In Flanders Fields”, written almost 101 years ago to this very day, Doctor Sir John McCrae immortalised these unassuming bit-part players in the Flemish landscape, just as he immortalised his fallen comrades:

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now
we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

For anyone that has seen the Ypres war graves and the surrounding flat fields of Flanders with the bunkers still visible after all these years (and if you haven’t yet but are in a position to, I urge you to do so); looking at the endless rows of immaculately tended to, dazzlingly white war graves, with the red sea of poppies swaying in the surrounding fields - their heads eternally bowed in seemingly respectful reverence, it is a truly humbling experience.

As I stood surveying the scene around me, it was one of the most moving moments of my life and a moment I shall remember forever. You don't need "breathless scenery" to have the same effect.

So I make no bones about it, I make no excuses, I love the humble poppy.

And then of course, opium is produced from the unripe seed pods.

Need I say more?


Lindsay said…
Beautiful imagery.
Jenny Okanagan said…
Lest we forget...a fitting tribute to those who gave their lives for their country.
Poppies grow best in disturbed ground and would probably have been the first plants to come back to war-torn fields.
Also of interest is that Sir John McCrae was Canadian.