by Jan Baughman
(Swans - June 16, 2014) I don't recall how this story began, but it was in 2005 and no doubt it was rather innocuously -- probably something like this: Gilles d'Aymery and I were sitting on the deck in Boonville on a beautiful spring morning, admiring the California poppies that were emerging from the rain. To which Gilles said, "They're nice, but they're not coquelicot... Imagine instead of orange poppies, there were beautiful red ones like all over the fields of France."
The coquelicot, or Papaver rhoeas, is...
...a native of Europe, is notable as an agricultural weed (hence the "corn" and "field") and as a symbol of fallen soldiers. P. rhoeas sometimes is so abundant in agricultural fields that it may be mistaken for a crop. The only species of Papaveraceae grown as a field crop on a large scale is Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.
I've never met a search challenge that intimidated me, and it didn't take long to find some seeds through the Paris Web site L'Aterlier Vert. I ordered five one-gram packets, which were from Le Jardin Sauveterre, a seed company in Moutier-Malcard, Central France, to be mailed to Gilles. They came in beautiful white envelopes with a pen-and-ink drawing of a coquelicot plant and simple instructions. Semis d'automne en place. Il lui faut une période de froid pour germer. Floraison de mai à juillet. Grands pétales de fleurs rouges. (Plant in the fall. Requires a period of cold to germinate. Blooms from May to July. Red flowers with large petals.) Accompanying the seed packets was a handwritten note: "The thoughtful gift of Jan Baughman from L'Atelier Vert." Only in France: personalized seeds.
I waited patiently till fall, then spread hundreds if not thousands of the tiny precious seeds in the hills around the house, imagining their transformation to fields of red. Months passed and spring came, which brought the annual greening of the wild grass that reaches 4 feet tall, and must be cut for fire protection after the last rain in May or June. Which of course would take the coquelicot along with it... As the grass turned dry, golden brown, and was ready to be mowed, I spotted a few -- very few -- green plants with distinctive leaves peeking through the soil over the leach field. I compared them to the drawing on the seed envelope. Coquelicot!
Unfortunately, it didn't take long for the deer to discover the tasty young greens, and dine on them they did (though they are mildly poisonous), but die they (the deer) did not. I carefully uprooted the grass around the remaining plants, and staked out an area of about 100 square feet and wrapped green plastic netting to protect the flowers. Not exactly the image of wild coquelicot, but we still enjoyed a few blooms that year. Not long after that, I gave up, and they did not return.
A few autumns later I revisited the remaining seeds, determined to make a go of it. At the end of our dirt and gravel driveway sat an 8-foot long by 1-foot wide wooden planter of iris, whose purpose served primarily to keep cars from driving off the hill. I scraped the soil around the bulbs, sprinkled some seeds, covered the dirt with netting, and waited, without saying a word to Gilles. The rain came and went, and soon the plants appeared and summer brought a glorious showing of coquelicot. Success at last! The flowers bloomed and spread their seeds. The following year, the poppies appeared in and around the planter by the hundreds, now occupying a smaller wooden planter box in the midst.
This time the deer were not a problem, humans were. One Friday I arrived home for the weekend, only to find that our occasional helper, Hector, had pulled most of the plants out of the driveway, naively weeding and probably pleased with the cleaning he'd done. First, I cried. Then I crafted little signs to put around the remaining plants: "No tire de las plantas" -- do not pull the plants.
For a couple of years, we took delight in the coquelicot, and I carefully harvested the seeds after each flower dropped its petals. When we moved from Boonville in February, I wondered if the new owners would clear the driveway of what they would think were weeds before having a chance to experience their beauty. We had to leave behind the 8-foot planter box, but I loaded the small square one in the moving truck, probably to the amusement of the movers who wondered why I was taking a wooden box of what was then just dirt. Little did they understand what treasures it transported within.
I placed the planter box in the middle of our small San Francisco yard where it would get the maximum sun exposure that a San Francisco yard can get. In May, the plants began to emerge, and since the beginning of June we've been excitedly counting the coquelicot -- first one, then three, then ten, and now too many to count, with many more to come and many seeds to harvest and plant again.
From the fields of Normandy, to a seed shop in Central France, sent by a company in Paris, grown and propagated in Boonville, California, and now residing in San Francisco, the gentil coquelicot continue bringing beauty and joy. Perhaps they will spread in the wind, and find their place alongside the orange poppy, side by side, French and Californian, just like Gilles and me.
Le Jardin Sauveterre
Gentil Coquelicot -- Children's song
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