In my yard May means poppies. Cars stop and strangers tumble out to admire a field of a single color: a lusty Mexican red, a cousin of hot pink. People ask if poppies are legal -- don't they yield opium?
Twelve years ago we started with five plants. By last year, every day for three weeks, half a dozen pods the size of a plum burst open. Out pop discs of crinkly petals as much as five inches in diameter. They look like petticoats, some tightly packed, others a few ruffles. Swinging in the lightest breeze, on stems as long as 20 inches, the poppies are a chorus line.
Each bloom lasts a day or two. Then the petals curl up, fray and shrivel, and turn a muddy gray. In the end, the poppies look like quarreling fishwives.
As the last of the poppies withers, a rosebush begins to bloom. The brooding dark red suggests Spain; the texture, the velvet of a Renaissance gown. The petals are in folds that conceal royal purple as well as the washed-out pink of a cotton nightshirt -- secrets of a genealogy that no passing admirer can penetrate.
The roses' decline, ever so graceful, takes weeks. When it's all over, they turn the color of dried blood.
The poppies' crazy color copies a neon sign; the roses' red is a classic shade. One suggests the thrills of a sailors' bar; the other, honor and class.
This past winter killed the rosebush. The stump was as thick as my arm, yet dry and light, and I got it out of the ground with a single yank. But the poppies this May are spectacular again, and more numerous than ever. There will be still more of them next year.