A Patch of Unruly Poppies

THERE are many scenic highways in the Ozarks, but Arkansas 59 between Siloam Springs and Gentry isn't one of them. Oh, it's a pleasant enough passage, bordered by pastures and the scattered structures needed for humanity's commerce and shelter, but no one has ever been tempted to put it on a postcard.

John and I traveled Arkansas 59 regularly for several years, going back and forth from the big city where we worked to the country homestead where we spent weekends. We had marked the changing scenery along the highway for so many years that we barely noticed the landscape moving by our car windows in fast forward.

At least that's how it was until one May evening when our car rounded one of Highway 59's curves, and we found ourselves in the middle of a carpet of red. Poppy blossoms filled every inch of roadside for 800 yards or more. Red flowers swept up and down the bar ditches and away from the road edges toward every fence line. We were used to seeing a few, sometimes more than a few, wildflowers along the roadway, but these poppies were so far beyond a few that they tested both belief and eyesight.

John slowed the car and turned around in a side road so we could parade back through the poppies, heralded and reverenced by their splendor. We didn't stop, and had no desire to get out of the car for a closer look. Something about the massed blossoms suited viewing through a car window so the whole area could be seen at once. We had no wish to step among the flowers or to pick any one of them. There was no need to value one red poppy when we could experience thousands.

After a few weeks the red blooms faded, and then the state highway crew mowed the roadsides. All that was left was a memory of poppies. John and I also had a new urge to propagate poppies. We owned 1,200 feet of country roadside that we thought should be just about right.

We looked in our seed catalogs at the confusing selection, then ordered poppy seeds of all kinds, not sure whether wild, California, Oriental, or some other variety were the poppies we had seen. We carefully followed the instructions on each package, and waited. May came and went. There were no poppy plants and no poppy blossoms.

We hadn't expected to start big. We thought we could begin with a small amount and scatter seed. Then, as the years passed, we would begin to stop May traffic on our own country road. But there were no home-grown seeds to scatter.

We decided the weather was at fault, and repeated our seed order. This time we planted seeds in our garden as well as in specially prepared areas along the roadside. A few small orange poppies bloomed in the garden, and four or five purple and red blossoms appeared by the road. Presumably the seed dropped, but one year was all any of those poppies could manage.

We gave up. Several years passed. Bowing to the will of the highway mowing crew, even the poppies along Highway 59 withdrew to a few scattered clumps of red.

It was as if the red carpet had existed only in the mind. We had never taken a photograph of them; they had seemed too magic to freeze on film. An artist's painting would have been the only adequate way to preserve what we saw, but neither of us could draw or paint.

Finally, the time came when John and I were able to leave the city and become full-time Arkansas homesteaders. We gladly separated from city life, well aware that most people who knew us there would be unable to make any connection with the slick city couple who had been transformed into a pair of hillbillies. Our parents had all been born on farms and thought the country was something people escaped from.

Our escape went a different way, and we didn't care if no former life, no former blooming, followed us. In the new life, money and fancy things could no longer be taken for granted, but we were, and are, supremely content.

Last year when I was getting ready to plant my gardens, I found an old seed envelope in my saved seed basket. It was a commercial packet labeled "African Parsley." I had never heard of the variety, which was neither curled nor Italian, but I decided to plant it anyway. I use a lot of parsley, and any type is welcome.

I am familiar with the slow sprouting habits of parsley, so I carefully marked the spot where I planted the new seed, wanting to give it space to begin while other garden chores occupied my time.

One evening I came to the garden and saw several small green sprouts in the African Parsley area. They didn't look like the types I knew, and I nibbled carefully on a leaf to see what African Parsley tasted like. It tasted like grass. Well, I thought, maybe this one doesn't do much until it's grown.

It never did much, parsley-wise. But when it was grown,2 it bloomed, spreading red poppy flowers across the vegetable garden.

We weren't too surprised by this new phase of poppy magic. We watched the blossoms dry and drop petals, and then seed, across the garden. Maybe next year. The sweep of red made us think of roadside flowers again.

WE tried not to be disappointed when our garden showed no sign of poppy plants this spring. After all, we were used to the peculiar blooming ideas of poppies.

Our large vegetable garden is made of raised beds bordered with concrete-like gravel paths. Well drillers leave piles of finely ground limestone when they drill for water in this area. Our own well goes down 800 feet. My garden paths look like those in a carefully tended city park, but the material I used was plentiful, and free. The limestone gravel solidifies into a base that heavy garden carts and booted feet appreciate, and it discourages even the hardiest Arkansas weed.

This year, though, quite a few green plants did push up through the path's hard surface. I was curious, and, as they grew, became more than a little suspicious. I left them alone, and waited.

I shouldn't have been surprised. Now there is no room for my garden cart, and barely room for me on my garden paths. They are all filled with bright red poppy blossoms.

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