The eleventh hour approaches. There will be a high level of interest and debate as to the colour of flowers, namely poppies. Hues include not just red for the British Legion, but also white for peace; and our local community textiles organisation Significant Seams are stitching green ones for mental health, and purple for the role of women in WW1.
Few poppies, few flowers, will be in full flush by then, in garden or field. Our poppies at Hawkwood have gone to compost, every one. They were Papaver somniferum “Sokol”, white breadseed poppy, an underplanting for tomatoes. Their petals fine and pale as confetti, and as transient, which is one face of the multifaceted poppy legend: that of short life, or eternal youth. As one of the War poets put it: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left to grow old/ Age shall not weary them”. The tomatoes above them matured, but were a way from wearing by the time we gathered in the crop of poppy seed, for which I can’t quite recall what the plan was, dishonouring another face, that of remembrance. The poppy seed “remembers” how to germinate, for at least forty years, over a century by some accounts.
Overlaying other ancient associations of the poppy with life and death is, of course, their dramatic surge across the fields of Flanders in the immediate aftermath of the First World War’s bombing and churning : nature’s first aid.
The poppy does not have monopoly on such symbolism. By the time of the next World War, aerial bombing had become a feature of combat, so death and destruction need not be confined to “some far-off corner of a foreign field”, but something to be endured regularly by civillians. In population and manufacturing centres across Britain, buildings and streets were decimated and, with rebuilding not a priority, renovation was again in the lap of the plants.
Rosebay willowherb, a plant that loves to follow fires, rose tall from the ashes, its light purple spikes giving many embattled residents a redemption sign. Blooms after the booms. A poll by the charity Plantlife found that, in 2002, nearly a half century after the end of the War, Londoners’ favourite wildflower remained Rosebay, or “Bombweed” or “Fireweed”, as it is equally well known.
A similar poll carried out in the eighteenth century would have likely got a different result. In 1666, the Great Fire of London blazed through the city’s streets. A major disaster, but the golden lining was that the inferno appeared to do away with the Black Death. The golden flowering was Sisymbrium irio, or London Rocket, appearing everywhere. Previously unrecorded as a weed, it was believed by some to have appeared spontaneously. A native of the Mediterranean, it is more likely that it had been around, coming in with grain or spice, and had quite sensibly lain low until something appraching warm ground was made available.
To this day, it smiles on the odd industrial site and road verge, and now at Hawkwood, where it is to be found “keyhole” beds on the West Bank Salad Terrace: an occasional addition to the mixed salad. It is smaller, tougher, but otherwise not dissimilar to the Wild Rocket that is a mainstay of our salad. Hawkwood wears its London Rocket with pride.
The eleventh hour, the eleventh month. We realise too late how vital is peace, is harvest, are flowering plants. At Hawkwood, the Indian summer having burnt to a cinder, it is likewise the flowering plants that we look to for remembrance. In a matter of weeks the Entrance Field has changed completely: the potatoes, squash, celery, beetroot and lettuce that dominated the view all season, have left the stage, to be enjoyed by Londoners alongside the faltering fruit of tomato and bean flowers. In their place, bare ground; the rotted remains of the dead; and the just visible outline of an army of seedlings, as if by magic, stirring together, with their fragile promise of a brighter tomorrow.