Beguiling the Poppy
I never knew I could be the sort of woman who grew poppies. These women live in gigantic houses with terraced gardens, boasting dripping sedum and perfect bunches of perennials, color coded, tendrilling out of their hibernation in perfect cycles. These women, some sturdy with spiky hair, licking their girlfriend’s ear in public, some in long overall type dresses, tight curly hair never getting into their eyes, their hunky husbands, sporting tool belts, bursting out of the house with a glass of wine on a golden tray.
“Honey, why don’t you leave the garden for now?”
These women don’t sweat. These women hold the secret to color¾the California poppies’ papery orange ecstatic fluttering, the virgin pink or dragon-red flames of corn poppies grouping around the walkway. These poppy women are able to survey their bursting gardens from a flagstoned patio glance, while sipping their Nebbiolo or Chenin Blanc. These women were not me. I tried to grow poppies and failed.
A Colorado master gardener friend (I’ll call her Camille) pshawed this idea.
“Beth,” she said, “Your problem is that you want to coddle your plants. You can’t think of poppies as if they’re roses. You need to be like a dude and ignore them. You need to play hard to get.”
Could it be that I was overanalyzing the poppy? Expert gardener Barbara Pleasant claims the poppy to be the “Easiest plant to grow.” She writes, “You can grow them in Sleetmute, Alaska. You can grow them in Corkscrew, Florida. Heck, there was even a big patch of them just shy of Oz on the Yellow Brick Road!” Was I the only gardener around who had bad luck growing poppies? To understand the poppy, I had to get into poppy-mind. Not to plunge into its aphrodisiac qualities (we’re not allowed to grow that variety here), but to understand its wants and needs. Basically, Camille had me pegged. I was an overbearing drudge. Poppies held a grudge against me.
To lure this beauty from my sandy acidic soil, I had to stop planting it in the “normal” planting seasons. As I read up on this obstinate beauty, I learned what’s obvious to me now. Don’t grow this seed indoors with your herbs in February. Don’t even let its papery folds, its furry bulb head into your mind in the spring. No. This plant needs to be ignored, left alone. Which is so hard for me. Look at Le Coquelicot (yes, the root of this name is ‘Coq’) by Kees Van Dongen (and now ignore the dong in Dongen.) It’s the over exaggerated red hat, the woman’s eyes looking off away from its viewer, confidant of the action she’ll be getting momentarily. The poppy is a primal need. This is what it feels like to be human.
Camille commanded, “Throw those poppy seeds on the cold ground and then they’ll want your love.” I didn’t even have to prepare my soil. When I was able to let go of this idea of seducing these almost-alien-at-first bodies out of my inadequate garden patch, it was almost too much for me. Nothing to coddle, watch under grow lights, no spring grace during winter in my living room, where I was all knowing, all seeing grower.
Poppies are actinomorphic, not zygomorphic, which according to Ushimaru et al means that in the world of flower sex is “easily pollinated.” Poppies throw themselves freely to any honey bee coming along to plunge into their open folds. To the sluts of the floral world, I was coming on too strong.
I took my Papaver rhoeas seeds when the wind held enough chill for me to feel like eating lentil soup and wearing slippers all day and threw them onto the cold ground in the corner of my garden I had previously tried planting something fluttering and pink. Yes. Then they came. The poppies rose up and out in a mild May, furry, wanton, curving bundles, obstinate, and soon to throw open color into my landscape.
Throw those poppy seeds onto the ground unabashedly. They need nothing more. Do this, and you’ll have the poppy’s heart forever. We can all be this sort of woman.
Ushimaru, Atushi, Ikumi Dohzono, Yasuoki Takami, and Fujio Hyodo. 2009. “Flower orientation enhances pollen transfer in bilaterally symmetrical flowers.” Oecologia 160, no. 4: 667-674. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 7, 2011).
Pleasant, Barbara. 1995. “Poppies make the world go round.” Organic Gardening (08973792) 42, no. 5: 68. GreenFILE, EBSCOhost (accessed February 7, 2011).
Elisabeth Kinsey teaches writing online, lives in Denver, and pines away for Half Moon Bay. She has been published in The Denver Post and various journals, including Greenwoman, where this essay first appeared. Her hands are imminently dirty. She may or may not be related to the late Dr. Alfred Kinsey.