Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Poppies Blow

            They grow all over Central Asia, where armies live off their market value. They grew for the British Empire. They grow in Iceland. I expect they grow in thousands of other places too, and they surely grow -- as the famous poem tells us -- in Flanders Field. But they don't necessarily grow that well in Massachusetts. I have planted a few over the years that have taken in vain the name of perennial. Not so hot the first year. A little worse the second year. Just, bam, gone after that.
            When we drew on professional counseling at a garden center of our choice before deciding on what to plant in the front of the house, our perennials expert cautioned me to lower my expectation that a poppy would contribute significantly to the color load on one side of the front walk. She said something like "My poppy plant in my garden at home? I got maybe two blossoms last year." She talked us into a hydrangea. I'm happy we have the hydrangea, though its appetite for water is a mid-summer burden, but I snuck in a poppy as well.
            I'm pretty sure we planted only one. Returns were moderate at best the first few years. Plus they have long skinny necks on which those extravagant heads float, like visitors from another planet. It's easy for somebody or something to crimp the neck or bite off the bud. It invites disasters, in the manner of only children. Of things waited for, and disproportionately precious. 
            I think we did a little better last year. Maybe three blossoms, maybe four.
            But maybe those Icelandic poppies they market in the US like cold winters. That's the only difference I see from last year. This year the poppy has spread, gone forth and multiplied, done whatever this plant does to propagate itself, because those long-necked stems are poking out wherever they can manage to find room between all the other plants packed into that crowded corner of earth -- the hydrangea, yes, rubbing elbows with the butterfly bush, the lavender, the little slow-growing boxwood hedge bushes, some other doughty plant that expands and flowers every year but whose name and origins have completely escaped my memory, not to mention the volunteer wild rose that insists on returning bigger every year no matter what I do it.
            More buds this year, more sinuous stems, more blossoms so far. More on the way.
            They look even more extra-terrestrial in greater numbers. Neon orange glowing in the air, they float in the distance like oddly colored planets or low-lying suns. And like other strongly colored objects, they appear to get brighter when the sky darkens. The greens and browns pull into together and gather darkness or dull, overcast skies unto themselves, but the orange flowers, red roses, and the purple clematis beam like headlights in the dusk.
            As for that World War I poem ("In Flanders Field" by John McCrae), how many of us were asked to memorize it? "In Flanders Field the poppies blow/  Beneath the crosses row on row/ That mark our place.../ We are the dead./ Short time ago..." But I'm already starting to guess.
            Here's how it actually goes:

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, fly
Scarce heard amid 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 ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

            I don't care for the conventional final stanza, but the poem is s great verbal music, especially at the start. And in their season the poppies do hold up their torches.