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Eschscholzia californica-California Poppy

Plant of the Month
April 2011

Eschscholzia californica-California Poppy

What: Eschscholzia californica-California Poppy
Type: Perennial Wildflower (often treated like annual)
Light: Likes full sun but can take partial shade inland
Soil: Well drained (but adaptable)
Water: Drought tolerant

Note: In honor of California Native Plant Week which is celebrated throughout the State the third week of this month (April 17-23) I offer our lovely and vigorous State flower as our plant of the month!

The California Poppy is the most well known flower in our state that even schoolchildren are taught to recognize. Its vivid golden-orange color once washed the hillsides and valleys throughout much of California. Remnants of those long ago flower bonanzas are still seen near Gorman and the various poppy preserves including the well known 1745 acre Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve in Los Angeles County. You can also visit them right now in your GWC Native Garden.

This plant has finely divided foliage of a blue green cast upon which stems bearing its signature flower rise 1-2 feet. The satiny 1-3 inch wide petals form a shallow cup-shaped flower, perfect for bees to tumble around while being covered in pollen. The early Spanish explorers would fittingly call California Poppies copa de oro meaning ‘cup of gold’.

In hot summer areas, the poppies will bloom through spring, with March, April and May normally their strongest bloom period. With summer heat the tops normally die back and the plants become dormant with the poppy surviving in the form of a fleshy taproot. No supplemental watering is required (unless the growing season is exceptionally dry). Some clever people have found that they can extend the blooming season into early summer by cutting plants to a few inches above ground height and watering after the main blooming period is nearing its finale. A second growth and bloom period follows.

Wherever you garden California poppies are easy to grow if you have a sunny spot, accepting various soils (yes, even clay). Sow the seeds shallowly (1/16-inch deep) in fall through early winter (or even later for us here in southern California). Seeds will germinate after the first fall rains. Caution is encouraged when seeding since every seed germinates! You can end up with far more plants than you ever dreamed, so closely packed together they struggle to grow. Also since the plants can easily grow to 24 inches across you do not want to crowd them.

Once planted there is usually no need for ever seeding the garden with poppies again. After the flowers fade, 1-3 inch long seed pods are formed, containing tiny brown to black seeds, which are scattered in all directions when the pods open with explosive force. In fact you are likely to find yourself removing “extra” poppies since these plants can definitely take over a garden. If you plan on growing other native annuals, use the Poppy sparingly since it can crowd out other species.

The best place to enjoy this plant is in either the Wild lands or in our gardens but the California Poppy also makes a good cut flower for indoor enjoyment. Although they do not last as long as many commercially grown flowers, I find flower that young flowers, picked in the cool of the morning, and placed in water immediately often last for several days. What a cheerful addition to a small bouquet! Remember, at night the flowers will curl closed and open in the day’s light, just like in the garden!

Enjoy our State Flower in your garden or visit it here at GWC Native Garden. It is a show stopper!

Additional Information:
State Flower: The California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) was selected as the State flower by the California State Floral Society, in December 1890.  Other native flowers under consideration at the time were the Mariposa Lily (Calochortus), and Matilija Poppy (Romneya).  The California Poppy though won the vote by a landslide.  Eventually, in 1903, the California state legislature officially declared Eschscholzia californica as the State flower, and April 6th is designated as the official California Poppy Day.

Naming: Adelbert von Chamisso, naturalist aboard the Russian exploring ship "Rurick”, discovered and named the species. The Rurick visited Alaska and California in 1816 under the command of Lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue. Chamisso named the California poppy Eschscholzia californica in honor of J. F. Eschscholtz, the ship's surgeon and entomologist (note that he accidentally left the “t” out of Eschscholtz’s name).

Invasive?: What is good here may not be welcome in all parts of the world! Although Eschscholzia californica is native to western North America, it has reportedly naturalized in many parts of the world becoming a weed of sorts, including India, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and South Africa, and is even considered an invasive plant in some parts of the United States outside of its home range. Ironically, it has been displaced in large areas of its original habitat, such as Southern California, by more invasive exotic species, such as mustard or annual grasses.