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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Plant of the Month (February) : California Poppy – Eschscholzia californica

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): Mother Nature's Garden of Health

One of the more impressive spring perennials is the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica).  With all the other spring-blooming treasures, we’ve yet to feature this native crowd-pleaser.  So we’ll remedy that this month.  The slightly tongue-tying scientific name is pronounced es-shuh-HOLES-ee-uh  cal-i-FOR-ni-cuh. The genus name honors Dr. Johann Friedrich Gustav von Eschscholtz (1793-1831), an Estonian surgeon and botanist with Russian expeditions to the California coast in the early 1800’s.

California poppy is the quintessential California plant; in fact, it’s the state flower.  It grows throughout much of the state, with the exception of the hottest deserts and high elevations.  It has always been an important player in plant communities all along the California coast.  Early explorers wrote of the ‘fields of gold’ on the coastal hillsides.   And California poppies, some started from seeds brought back long ago, brighten gardens throughout the world.

In Los Angeles County, California poppy grows on Catalina Island, in the Santa Monica Mountains, on the Palos Verdes peninsula, in the L.A. Basin (from the coast to the San Gabriel Mountains), in the San Gabriel Mountains and in the Antelope Valley. It was collected by Los Angeles County botanists as early as the 1850’s.   Specimens from all the major California plant collectors, from then to the present, reside in herbaria worldwide. 

California poppy is a member of a wide range of plant communities, from the higher elevation Yellow Pine, Red Fir and Lodgepole Forests, to the lower elevation Foothill Woodland, Chaparral, Valley Grassland, Northern Coastal Scrub and Coastal Prairie communities.  Although several regional sub-types have been proposed, all are currently lumped under the parent species. 

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): coastal form

The coastal form of the poppy – still sometimes called Eschscholzia californica ssp. californica or Eschscholzia californica ssp. maritima - is bright golden yellow with a yellow-orange center.  We still try to grow this form in our local gardens (and ruthlessly remove plants with ‘too orange’ flowers).  We encourage California gardeners to search out seed sources from their own area, to help keep the regional types from disappearing.

The more familiar ‘all orange’ form was originally found further inland in S. California.  Good examples of the inland form can be seen at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, west of Lancaster (Los Angeles County).   Check the wildflower hotline (http://theodorepayne.org/education/wildflower-hotline/) for what’s blooming, and where.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): re-sprouting

California poppy is an herbaceous perennial, although it is grown as an annual wildflower in places with cold winters or very hot summers.  Locally, plants die back to a stout woody stem/root with hot weather, remaining dormant until the cool, moist weather of late fall/winter. A summer rainstorm (or a little summer water) will sometimes trick them into emerging early – if the temperatures are not too hot.  Individual plants can live many years; we know of one in our personal garden that is 35 years and going strong.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): old plant

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): growth habit

Many readers will be familiar with the appearance of California poppy.  It’s a low-growing plant, the foliage never more than 12 inches (30 cm) tall and about as wide.  The overall shape is loosely mounded. The leaves are pale gray-green to medium green and are finely dissected (see photo below).  The plant has a delicate, refined appearance.  That’s probably one reason why gardeners like it.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): leaves
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): flower bud

Many gardeners are also familiar with California poppy’s flowers, which are usually around 2 inches (5 cm.) wide on a slender stem.  The flowers are simple yet uniquely beautiful; a fitting symbol of our California natural heritage.  They have four delicate, fan-shaped petals.  The petals are rolled into a cylindrical bud (above) and unfurl as the flower emerges, forming an open, bowl-shaped flower.  Flowers open in the day and close-up at dusk (or on cloudy or windy days).  One Spanish name for this plant is ‘dormidera’ or ‘the sleepy one’ – perhaps in reference to the floral closure.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): flower unrolling

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): flower fully open

The sexual parts of the flower are conspicuous above the petals.  The female parts (pistil) are centrally located, with a stigma (top part) divided (see below).  The stamens are several to many, around the stigma.  After pollination, the sexual parts wither, and the developing ovary becomes more prominent (below). The petals ultimately fall off, leaving the seed pod.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): floral parts

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): floral parts
The floral architecture is relatively unspecialized and typical of the Poppy family (Papaveraceae).   Flowers produce little nectar and are virtually unscented.  Their pollinators are a wide variety of insects, from beetles to pollinator flies, bees and others.  While there are beetles, we mostly see bees visiting the flowers in our gardens.  It’s fun to watch them – whether European Honey Bees or native species – scrambling around in the floral bowl.  The procedure’s a bit ungainly, but the bees seem to pick up (and distribute) plenty of pollen (below).

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): bees

California poppies usually produce lots of seeds.  The seeds are small, rounded and brown when ripe.  You’ll know when the seeds are ripe: the dry pods spring open with explosive force, spreading the seeds.   If you want to collect seeds, wait until pods become a purple-brown, almost ready to open.  Snip off the pods and place them in a (well-closed) paper bag in a cool place. After they finish drying, separate the seeds from the dry pod pieces; then store seeds in a labeled glass jar or envelope in a cool, dark place.  

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica):
 seed pods

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): old pod sections

California poppies are good naturalizers, as long as a garden is not heavily mulched.   You can let the plants go to seed – or collect seeds and give them as gifts, if you’ve already got too many plants.  The seedlings are very distinctive (see below) and easy to pull up when young.  If happy, a few plants will produce offspring throughout a garden in a year or two.  If you need to pull up some young plants (below) you can always dry them for use medicinally.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): seedlings
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): young plants

Eschscholzia californica can be grown in most soils – sandy to clay.  It does like sun (at least half-day) and either bare soil, thin leaf mulch or inorganic (gravel) mulch. A heavy layer of bark mulch will prevent seeds from sprouting (they need light). Sprinkle seeds out in garden beds with the fall rains (or in spring in colder climates). Seedlings are very susceptible to drying out (a good way to limit their spread).  But plants (even last year’s plants) are very drought tolerant.  California poppies have a stout orange taproot, allowing them to access deep water.  In a ‘normal’ year, they may need no supplemental water.  But in a dry California winter, plants need watering every 2-3 weeks, if rains don’t keep the soils moist. 

We like to let our plants gradually dry out after blooming slows down – usually about the end of April in our part of S. California.    Plants will die back to the ground.  After plants have gone to seed, cut the dead leaves and stems back for a neater appearance.  That’s really about all there is to it, since plants get along fine with little to no summer water and no fertilizer.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): in garden

So why include California poppies in your garden?  A better question is ‘why not’? They are our state flower.   You can start them inexpensively from seed.  They make a good filler between plants or when a new garden is getting started. And they naturalize, making them an excellent investment over time.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): good filler plant

They provide patches of golden accent, at a time when days may be gray and rainy.  They look absolutely glorious with annual wildflowers, grasses and perennials.  Since they are native to much of California, you can combine them with your own local native palette, creating a truly authentic regional garden.  And pollinators and seed-eating birds will thank you for your thoughtfulness.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): with
 local native plants, Madrona Marsh Nature Center

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): with
Arroyo lupine (Lupinus succulentus)

We love to pair the gold of poppies with the blues and purples of Lupines, Blue-eyed grass, the Gilias and Phacelias.  We get so many complements on these combinations; you may want to use them in your garden as well.  And, of course, you can always find a place for California poppy in your herb or medicinal garden. 

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): in Mother Nature's
 Garden of Health

California poppy seeds can be used in any recipe calling for poppy seeds.  The entire plant has long been used medicinally as well.  Like all poppies, Eschscholzia californica produces chemicals with sedative properties.  In the California poppy, these chemicals are mild and apparently not habit-forming.  In old times, an infusion made from the whole plant was used to calm colicky babies and induce sleep in babies and children.  The juice was applied directly for toothache. 

A cup of California poppy tea, made from dried plants and sweetened a bit, is a gentle sleep aid when taken half an hour before bed time (we know – we’ve tried it). It is reported to also help reduce anxiety, relieve headaches and calm tense muscles and nerves.  It may prove to be an important treatment plant for the young and elderly alike. But as with any herbal medicine, care should be taken when using Eschscholzia californica.  

Adequate clinical trials to assess dosing, safety and effectiveness of California poppy are not yet available. The only way to determine these important properties, in a wide range of people, is through carefully controlled and conducted medical studies.  Until we have clear, scientific-based evidence, California poppy should be taken with caution, and only after consulting a medical practitioner.  For more on the medicinal uses and cautions, see the references below.

In summary, California poppy is a plant that belongs in California gardens.  It’s our state flower and we’d love to see entire neighborhoods blanketed in yellow, as they were in times gone by. This plant is an important part of our natural heritage; an easy way to celebrate the place we call home.   And we welcome non-California gardeners to enjoy a bit of California gold in their own gardens.   We’re always happy to share the wealth!

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): with Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)


  1. Good article. I didn't know about the potential medicinal properties and that these could be substituted for the poppy seeds usually found in grocery stores.

    Question: can you tell us more about the poppy seeds sold at big box stores - are they the So Cal variety and are there any issues with using them?

  2. The poppy seed sold in markets is from the European Papaver somniferum. These seeds have been used in cooking, in many cultures, for millennia. The only concerns with using them are: 1) there are reported incidents of seeds accidentally contaminated with agricultural chemicals; 2) they do have medicinal properties - therefore should be used with moderation. Using them in cooking should generally not be a problem.