The California poppy is a startlingly beautiful garden plant that also has a history, lore and mystique that adds to its fascination.
According to legend, as early as 1680, when the Spanish began stopping off in California as part of their annual China trade trips, the seamen would use the vivid spring displays of golden California poppies as landmarks to identify their location.
It’s a lovely concept, but according to California poppy expert Curtis Clark, professor emeritus of Cal Poly Pomona, there are four basic groups of California poppy, each with its own geographical range. Inland you’ll find the massive displays that draw tourists from all over the world. The coastal varieties bloom more sporadically, but over a longer period.
Nevertheless, the Spanish explorers were captivated by the luminous flowers, calling them copa de oro, which means cup of gold, and dormidera, the sleepy one, for the flower’s habit of closing up at the end of the day.
Fast forward 300 years to 1952 when John Steinbeck described California poppies in his novel “East of Eden,” writing, “These too are of a burning color – not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be the color of the poppies.”
The plant remained nameless to the scientific world until 1816, when the Rurik, a Russian ship on a three-year exploratory journey around the world, stopped in the San Francisco bay for a month to restock supplies. At the time the area was occupied only by a small Spanish fort and mission.
Aboard the ship were two scientists, Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838), who was the ship’s botanist, and Johann Friedrich Gustav von Eschscholtz (1793-1831), the ship’s surgeon and entomologist. The two cultivated a deep friendship, and together they explored the region while the ship’s restocking took place.
While on their rambles, the golden-flowered California poppy caught their eye. In honor of his great friend, Chamisso named the bloom Eschscholzia californica. Eschscholtz didn’t seem to mind the fact that Chamisso dropped the letter “t” from the botanical name, for he returned the favor and named a variety of plants, including the genus Camissonia, after Chamisso. (The ship’s captain, Otto von Kotzebue, liked Eschscholtz well enough to name an island in the Marshall Islands Eschscholtz Atoll. In 1946 it was renamed Bikini Atoll.)
While ashore in California, Eschscholtz collected plant specimens and took copious notes describing the native California flora the two friends found. Eschscholtz's botanical collections from his time in California were published in 1826 under the title "Descriptiones plantarum novae Californiae, adjectis florum exoticorum analysibus.” It was the first scientific description of California's native flora and the first reference to California in the title of a scientific paper.
Ten years after Chamisso officially gave it a botanical name, the English plant collector David Douglas (of Douglas fir fame) gathered seeds of the California poppy in southern Oregon and sent them to the Royal Botanical Society in England. Thus the beautiful plant was introduced to Britain, where it became the darling of English gardens.
In the 1850s, the California gold miners were enamored by both gold ore and the golden poppies, as they called the flowers. According to one tale, some of the California native people believed the yellow nuggets the miners sought so earnestly were petals of the golden poppies buried deep in the earth.
In 1903 California designated the California poppy as its state flower, adding to the aura of the Golden State. Today, state and local municipalities include the seeds in erosion control mixtures and sow the plants along roadsides and in restoration projects. In these applications, the poppy’s value is golden.
Long before the Europeans and Russians began exploring the coast of California and David Douglas sent California poppy seeds back to Britain, the local population prized these plants not just for their beauty, but also their medicinal and nutritive value and as a source of oil extracted from the seeds. California tribal people would dry the above ground parts of the plant when in flower and grind them into a powder to relieve headaches and stomach aches, as well as for a sleep aid and to reduce anxiety.
They also dealt with toothache by applying the mildly narcotic milky sap from unripe seed pods. Unlike its distant relative the opium poppy, California poppies do not depress the central nervous system and are non-addictive.
California poppy tinctures are available today for the same purposes used in ancient times, as well as for incontinence. In addition, the leaves of the plant are used externally in powder form for antimicrobial properties that are effective for the elimination of head lice.
Known by many names, including golden poppy, California sunlight, cup-of-gold, flame flower and thimble of gold, California poppies are a beautiful addition to gardens. A short-lived perennial in its native environs, in Virginia we can grow them as annuals.
California poppies are plants of the sun that flourish in open, sunny spots. They also have the light-driven habit of opening their petals early in the morning and closing up as soon as the sun begins to lower or the day becomes overcast. Curiously, pollinating beetles often become trapped in the closed flower overnight. California poppy expert Curtis Clark postulates that the poppies may be an important beetle shelter.
The plant’s long tap roots (an aid to drought-tolerance) do not like to be disturbed, so you’ll have best success if you sow the seeds directly where you’d like them to grow. This fall just before the ground freezes, scatter the small, bead-like seeds. Like most wildflower seeds, they don’t want to be buried, but they do need seed-to-soil contact. Gently tamp down the area where you’ve strewn the seeds (use your hand or carefully walk over the area) and then water. They’ll germinate in 10 to 15 days and by the time the first frost occurs, the seedlings will be well enough established to survive the cold. By spring, the seemingly delicate flowers will have established long, robust tap roots full of food and water, all set for the spring flush of flower.
Hybridizers have been at work on these plants that pack such a punch in the garden. For example, in addition to offering seeds of the original California poppy species, the seed company Eden Brothers sells a “Mixed Color” selection that blooms in hues of red, orange, yellow, white and pink. Other seed purveyors offer double varieties and ruffled petals that have names such as ‘Summer Sorbet’, ‘Copper Swirl’ and ‘Jelly Beans’.
If you opt for the species, consider combining them with the blue flowering California native, arroyo lupine, which is available from Eden Brothers. The lupines are annuals that grow about 2 feet tall and produce upright spikes of deep blue and white blooms. Like California poppies, they are a prolific re-seeder. You’ll find this poppy-lupine combination growing wild on the inland hills of California where they cover vast open areas. If lupines aren’t to your taste, find other blue flowers to accent the golden poppies.
California poppies are great in container gardens, mixed beds, rock gardens, as a front-of-the border display, and in water-wise (xeric) landscapes. In full sun, they’ll give you a long-lasting show of golden cupped flowers. To extend the flowering, deadhead the faded blooms early in the season. Toward the end of the blooming period, leave some flowers to go to seed and self-sow to insure they return the following year.
Enjoy your own gold rush at Smith Mountain Lake and grow a bit of California history. While it may be legend that the 17th century Spaniards navigated the coast of California using the blooming poppy fields, modern lakers who ply the shores of our waters can use your display of golden California poppies as a landmark along their journey.