You’ve probably noticed a number of veterans on the street offering red poppies for a donation for Disabled Veterans.

Have you ever wondered why the poppy? Why not a white rose? A yellow zinna?

Why is it the red poppy was chosen as the symbol of the respect and gratitude we owe those who have fought and died to keep America the land of the free?

Why was the red poppy selected as an icon of Memorial Day, which was once called Decoration Day?

Poppies have long been symbolic of sleep and death; sleep because of the opium and death because of their blood red color. In Roman and Greek mythology, poppies were used as offering to the dead, as emblems on tombstones to symbolize eternal sleep.

Remember The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man ran through the field of flowers and went to sleep? A field of poppies.

The seeds of the flower can remain dormant for years, but if the ground is turned, they will blossom spectacularly. There are over a hundred types of poppies of all colors in Europe where they grow like weeds according to my encyclopedia.

But, how did the poppy become the symbol of Memorial Day?

During World War I, a great battle occurred in the fields of Northern France, near Flanders. The ground was literally turned upside down from the devastating explosions.

The first of the flowers to bloom after the fight was red poppies, creating a beautiful red carpet covering the rolling hills and hiding the war-torn battlegrounds.

Lt. Col. John McCrae was a professor of Medicine at McGill University of Canada before World War I. He had served as a gunner in the Boer War, but went to France in World War I as a medical officer with the first Canadian Contingent.

In 1915, McCrae served in a Canadian hospital on the Essex Farm at the second battle of Ypres. Overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness at the futility of the horrifying war, McCrae stepped out of the operating room for a breath of fresh air.

The beauty of the vast fields of red poppies blanketing the undulating hills suddenly struck him. Taking pencil and paper, he captured that moment of artistic inspiration.

He managed to incorporate the vigor of the red poppy, the sacrifices made by the wounded and the dead, and the intensity of his obligation to them on that scrap of paper.

He did it with a poem that lives still today, one we’ve all heard, “In Flanders Fields.”

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

We are the dead. Short days ago
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;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If yea break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

McCrae’s poem gained instant popularity.

He died three years later from pneumonia and meningitis. He was buried in a military cemetery near Calais on the English Channel, thus becoming one with those of whom he wrote in his famous poem.

Now, recognizing a day of respect for veterans goes back to 1866 when both the Union and Confederate dead were honored, but according to ANZAC, by the time of his internment, John McCrae’s verse had forever bound the image of the red poppy to the memory of the Great War.

The poppy was eventually adopted by the British and Canadian Legions as the symbol of remembrance of World War One and a means of raising funds for disabled veterans.

And down through the decades, as the name of the day has broadened from a limited few to include all veterans of all wars, the poppy, that tiny red flower, has remained a shining symbol of a country’s respect and gratitude.