Glorious California Poppies

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

Like other important events in life, you’ll never forget the first time you see a vast expanse of California poppies.
For me, this occurred more than 10 years ago while driving past a large corner lot in Reseda. I saw a blanket of orange flowers that made me stop the car.
Upon closer examination, I was impressed by the lacey blue-gray leaves that attached themselves to the stems carrying those brilliant sun-colored blooms.
There was a small house set back a considerable distance from the street, and no landscaping to speak of – just poppies. I remember thinking: “Whoever lives in this house is a genius, or an artist, or both.”
Since then, I have seen many hundreds of gardens, some pretty and prim, others exotic and wild. None has matched the simple splendor of that yard of poppies.
Back then, I was just becoming a so-called plant person, someone who almost gets into traffic accidents turning around to take a second look at a front yard, someone who cannot just take a leisurely look at nature, but is compelled to see each plant distinctly and up close.
This obsession of looking at plants, of taking constant and inquisitive notice of the green world that never ends, is but an expression of our longing for a divine connection. Plants are everywhere and they are self-sustaining. They do not need us, but we need them.
There is no force under heaven that is more vital and life-giving than that of plants. Not only our food and clothes and fuel, but our very breath comes from plants. The oxygen we inhale is given off by plants even as they make their own food during photosynthesis. And also, of course, plants are what give us our sense of beauty.
If you think such praise is poppycock, see for yourself at the California Poppy Festival, April 22-23 in Lancaster. All you need to do is find the park at Avenue L and 10th Street West. From there you will be taken by bus, free of charge, to the poppy preserve, where 100 million poppies await your ogling eyes.
A discovery you will make within even a small plot of California poppies is that not all of them are orange. Yellow, cream, white and pink are encountered frequently. On rare occasions, red and purple poppies may be sighted.
As the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) wanes and withers in May and June, its dominion is taken over by a relative of a distinctly different personality, the Matilija poppy (Romneya Coulteri). The Matilija poppy is a plant with character to burn, not only because of 10-inch diameter fried egg flowers – white crepe petals surrounding yellow centers – but
because its seeds germinate only when pine needles are burned over them.
The California poppy re-seeds readily, with no pre-germination requirement other than winter rain. Instead, the Matilija poppy spreads by rhizomes and, once established, will take over a garden. Yet it is slow to gain a foothold and, planted from a gallon container, may take up to three years to produce its first flower. Eventually, plants may grow to a height of 10 feet.
The bush poppies complete the list of popular poppies indigenous to our state. Bush poppies grow to more than 20 feet, have leathery bluegray leaves and clear yellow flowers. The island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii) is native to the Channel Islands and may be the most eagerly sought California native, because of its long bloom period and symmetrical growth habit. Because of the difficulty in propagating this plant, it is almost impossible to find. If anyone knows where this species is available for sale, please advise. I’ll be the first in line to buy one.
Shirley poppies, which come from England, also grow well in California gardens, where they self-sow without restraint. Their color is typically pink or red. Another red poppy, though seldom seen locally, is Glaucium corniculatum, the horned poppy from the Middle East. During the several years that I lived in Jerusalem, I never ceased to marvel at this annual flower, which bloomed in the middle of summer in dry, rocky soil.
No discussion of poppies would be complete without mention of their analgesic effects. Poppies contain alkaloids, the most potent plant chemicals, which serve in nature as a defense against insect pests. The walls of seed capsules of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) contain an alkaloid from which morphine and heroin are produced. California poppy leaves, which can be boiled, roasted or used for making tea, are capable of producing mildly euphoric effects, though not nearly as strong as those of the opium poppy.

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