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Plant of the Month

Plant of the Month
May 2010

Matilija Poppy-Romneya coulteri

Type: Perennial (Semi Evergreen, Herbaceous)
Light: Sun but can take dappled light and still flower
Soil: Likes well drained but will accept clay
Water: Can naturalize; be sure to lay off the water after late spring/early summer bloom

What a sight! Crepe paper white petals 6 to 8 inches across and a glowing ball of golden stamens in its center, striking to say the least! It is one of the most appreciated natives when in bloom with an apricot scent that is almost perfect in its sweetness and a deeply cut foliage of blue/green/gray color. The flower may resemble something people have for breakfast but let’s not call it the “fried-egg plant”. After all it is our Queen of the California wildflowers and as royalty deserves to retain some dignity.

Its dramatically flower-capped stems can easily reach 6 or even 8 feet high by the time it flowers in late spring. Then during the mid to late summer it declines and often looks less than presentable. Actually it pretty much dies back nearly to the ground by fall. About that time or even early winter is when you cut the plant back to 3 or 4 inch stalks. The plant looks more presentable and the attractive new growth which arrives with the rains is all new and fresh.

I have often heard people moan about not being able to start these plants-it’s true they can be a trifle delicate to transplant from the container. I have also often heard very loud moans regarding the quick rate of growth and aggressive behavior in gardens when this plant does take off. It spreads by underground rhizomes and can pop up 5, 10, or 20 feet away from the original plant. I have tried it in a large container and it has worked fairly well for a few years, but the number of flowers is small compared to those planted in the ground. Root barriers may help control its growth for awhile but eventually it gets loose and the only thing to help rein it in is root pruning with a sharp shovel. Even after such warnings as this, people cannot resist growing this beauty and you can be forgiven if you too succumb to its charms.

Obviously such a riotous plant cannot just be placed anywhere in a garden. Give it lots of space along dry edges of the garden or use it on slopes-as you can imagine it’s a great stabilizer of soils! Don’t plant small natives around it, since they will just be gobbled up. Instead plant large shrubs that can outcompete it for space and sun like large Ceanothus, Sugarbush, large Coffeeberry (like ‘Eve Case’), or Fremontodendron.

Note: ‘White Cloud’ is also very nice and may be a hybrid of Romney coulteri and Romney trichoclalx. Although it looks very much like the normal Matilija Poppy, its growth is a bit more restrained and dense. Flowers are very similar in size.