I bought two flats of ice plant today. Ice plant was a sensible choice. Extremely drought-and salt-tolerant, it thrives in the poorest soil, forming a ground-hugging mat of succulent foliage covered with fringed flowers. It even naturalizes here in arid Southern California.
The colors I chose, however, were not sensible. The first flat was red, a nearly incandescent red. The red isn’t zinnia red or strawberry red—it’s the red of dying embers, the red of ominous sunrises and lovers’ hearts laid bare.
And that wasn’t enough. I wanted more. So I bought a second flat: a mixture of magenta, fuchsia, and bubblegum. The pink flowers are nearly pornographic. They prompt you to don sunglasses. They beg you to stare, while implying you should look away.
I love these colors, though they do not make sense. I am planting them on a neglected, erosion-prone slope in my suburban front yard that is currently covered in vinca. Subdued vinca, with its small green leaves and purple flowers so delicate they’re nearly Victorian.
I should not be drawing attention to the slope. I should not plant anything this bright anywhere in the front yard, but opt for subtler colors. Colors that complement. Colors that submit.
But I have always had a tendency to avoid convention in favor of flash and whimsy. When I was a child, my mother bought me clothes in navy and rust, gray and wine. A-line plaid wool skirts (with slips!) and Pilgrim-collared blouses. I detested them. I wanted to dress like a flamenco dancer. She gave me my first bits of make up—pale peach blush in taupe lipstick. Who has taupe lips? I wondered. I secreted my allowance away until I could buy electric blue eyeliner and emerald eyeshadow, lipsticks in Scandalous Red and Kiss Me Pink.
Poor choices, all of them, but I wanted my lips to be lip-colored but better. What was the point of wasting time with makeup or wardrobe in neutral? I wanted color, riots of color. I wanted my Midwestern life to look like a tropical reef or a ballet folklorico.
My mother would sigh and hold up other girls as examples: “See how Heather wears her make up? It’s so tasteful. And Melissa always looks so nice. So tailored.”
My neighbors’ yards are tasteful. Their plantings are tailored, their shrubs arranged like soldiers at permanent attention. The closest thing to gaudy is their jasmine, the chaste, white-star flowers wafting their philandering scent the entire length of the street.
I love the fragrance, and I will probably plant some jasmine as well—just because I can. But I will put it on the backside of the bougainvillea trellis, where its tendrils can climb among the bougainvillea’s gaudy vermillion bracts.
I want my Southern California yard to look like Southern California but better. I scoff at the Tudor-style homes, the landscaping meant to disguise this area as something it is not—verdant and receptive to suburbs and golf courses and manicured lawns.
So I plant my two flats of ice plant. I do have at least one person’s approval: my six-year-old daughter. She is dressed for the occasion, and takes extra pains to avoid trampling the hem of her big-sky-blue taffeta dress in the dirt. A streamer of tulle crinoline, torn from some previous adventure, flutters behind her in the breeze. She wears purple-flowered shorts beneath—a practical concession “so the neighbors won’t see my undies,” which (trendsetter that she is) has become all the rage among the kindergarten girls at her school.
As the sun rises, she abandons her party-colored cardigan, but the bunny-eared headband stays on.
“Pull that weed, honey,” I say, pointing with my trowel. She follows my gesture and gasps.
“That’s not a weed, Mom! That’s the plant that makes the pretty yellow flowers. The ones that turn into wishing flowers!” From foliage alone, she has identified her favorite flower. I am impressed.
I study her earnest and dirt-smudged face, aghast at my mistake. I realize she is offering me a bit of grace: I can claim ignorance. I study my neighbors’ yards, putting-green uniform and devoid of wishing flowers. She nudges her toe in front of the weed, as if to hide it from my gaze.
“Oh,” I say, as if that explains everything, “I had no idea. Definitely leave it then.”
She relaxes, laughs at my inanity, and helps me plant our yard in the brightest colors: Scandalous Red and Kiss Me Pink.
And Dandelion Yellow. ❖
This article was published originally in 2015, in GreenPrints Issue #101.