What's that flower on Tony Blair's lapel?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 15 2004 6:29 PM

What's That Flower on Blair's Lapel?

The bloomin' thing, explained.

Poppies for remembrance
Poppies for remembrance

This weekend British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared on NBC's Meet the Press and CNBC's Topic A With Tina Brown wearing a small red flower on his lapel. What is this flower, and what does it signify?

It's a poppy, an international symbol of remembrance for veterans of war. Each year, the Royal British Legion, the United Kingdom's most prominent veterans' welfare organization, gives red paper poppies to those who contribute to its annual Poppy Appeal in late October and November. The drive generates almost half of the legion's operating budget each year and culminates on Nov. 11, Remembrance Day (in the United States, Veterans' Day), the anniversary of the World War I armistice. The occasion is celebrated more visibly in the United Kingdom than in the States; this past weekend, for example, two Douglas Dakota DC3 aircraft scattered 3 million poppy petals over London, and the Thames bridges and the London Eye were lit poppy red.

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Why a poppy? The flower was known to grow in World War I battlefields. (The chalky French and Belgian soil, one story goes, was inundated with lime from bombing rubble and sprang forth with the flowers shortly after battles ended.) Inspired by John McCrae's 1915 poem "In Flanders Fields," a New York YMCA volunteer named Moina Michael first proposed the poppy as a symbol of remembrance in 1918. The Royal British Legion adopted the practice in 1921, and this year manufactured 34 million of the paper flowers in its Richmond, Surrey, "Poppy Factory," which is staffed primarily by disabled veterans.

Though the U.S.-based Veterans of Foreign Wars also employ "Buddy Poppies" as a fund-raising device, the practice is much more widespread in the Commonwealth; veterans' groups distribute poppies in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (on ANZAC Day in April). (Numismatists might like to know that the Royal Canadian Mint has even released a special red poppy coin; the 25-cent piece is the first colored coin ever put into circulation anywhere.) Across the cities of Great Britain, "Poppy People" collect donations and hand out the paper mementos, looking much like Salvation Army bell-ringers. On a trip to London last week, Explainer found that roughly one out of every four tube passengers sported the vibrant red flowers; Explainer even dropped a pound in a Royal British Legion collection box and wore a poppy in his lapel for the duration of his stay—it was the easiest way to be mistaken for a Brit.

The red poppies are so ubiquitous in Great Britain that they've even inspired a counter-commemoration; the Peace Pledge Union distributes white poppies "as an alternative symbol of peace and a challenge to militaristic values."

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.