The California poppy was selected as the state flower of California because of its wide distribution in the state, long blooming period, and bright color. The natural range of the plant not only contains much of California, it stretches from the Columbia River in Washington to northern Baja California, Mexico and inland to Nevada, New Mexico, and Sonora, Mexico. It can be found in a wide range of habitats such as openings in pine forests, oak woodlands, chaparral, coastal scrub, and desert grasslands and from sea level to 6500 ft elevation. The scientific name is Eschscholzia californica. It was named after Johann Freidrich Eschscholtz who was a surgeon and naturalist on Russian expeditions to Pacific coastlands in 1816 and 1824.

ImageThe plant can be an annual or a perennial, depending on growing conditions and ancestry. The normal coloration ranges from yellow to orange. The wild form that lives in my local area is yellow with an orangish center. This form lives along the coast and is considered the "type" form, that is, this is the plant from which the species was originally described and classified. However, the inland form, with its bright orange flowers and larger size is the best known form. Once in a great while, I will see a wild plant with white flowers. It is normal for the flowers to have four petals, but occasionally a specimen with six or eight petals will occur. The species is highly variable and more than 50 subspecies have been proposed, though most botanists only recognize a few subspecies or varieties and some do not recognize any distinct subspecies.

ImageImageThe plant is easy to grow and the flowers are showy, so it should come as no surprise that it has been grown in gardens for a long time and escapes can be found in 24 U.S. states outside of the native range, six Canadian provinces, Australia, and Chile. (It is considered an invasive exotic pest plant in Tennessee.) British horticulturists have recognized the tendency of the flowers to be very variable and have selected out unusual forms. Colors ranging from white through shades of yellow and orange, to pink, rose, and red and bicolors are now available, along with double and semi-double forms. Colors may be pale, pastel, or bright. The numerous cultivars include Mission Bells, Ballerina, and Thai Silk.

ImageGetting your own plants started could hardly be easier. Seeds are available in many catalogs and you might also find packets at your local nursery. Plant the seeds in a full sun area with well-drained soil. Broadcast the seeds over cultivated soil. Sow where you want the plants to grow because they do not transplant well. Plant in the fall in mild-winter regions and in the spring in other areas. If the weather is dry, provide supplemental watering until seedlings appear. Plant food is not necessary. The plant is suitable for xeriscaping, but in dry regions, the flowering season can be extended with additional water in the summer. I have found that flowers that bloom in hot weather are smaller and more yellow than the flowers that bloom in the spring. These are from the same plant. In cold-winter regions, the plants are grown as annuals. In mild-winter regions, the plant can regrow from the root in the next growing season. If the plants look shabby in the fall, they can be cut back to ground level. Plants self-sow freely. The flowers close at night and during cloudy or very windy days.

ImageAside from horticulture, humans have developed other uses for the California poppy. Some California Indian groups used poppy flowers in their headdresses during their annual World Renewal ceremony. Old-time Californios made a hair dressing by frying poppy blossoms in oil. This was said to make the hair shine. It is reported that a mild sedative can be made from an extract of California poppy, though I won't vouch for the safety or effectiveness of it. Let the reader use his or her discretion. Natural displays of wild poppies help local economies by attracting tourists. There is some evidence that planting fields with California poppies and then plowing under the plants can after a few years rid an area of root knot nematodes.

If you have a sunny place, especially a sunny place where nothing else wants to grow, consider trying California poppies. As annuals, they are suited to many climates. They have no special soil needs, as long as the soil is not constantly wet. They also come in so many different colors that you are bound to find a variety that fits your garden color pallet. California poppies are eager to please you.

Photos from top to bottom:

Cultivated poppy in my yard, this one with six petals;

Wild poppies in the Santa Monica Mountains;

Cultivated pink poppies - photo by Mrs_Ed

Cultivated white poppy - photo by Cliff Hutson courtesy of Wikimedia Commons;.

Wild poppies at the Carrizo Plain Natural Area;

Cultivated pink poppies - photo by Mrs_Ed

{[email protected] Thank you to Mrs_Ed for the use of the pink poppy pictures. @--}