Cup of Gold: California Poppy


The spring flowers in a wet year were unbelievable. The whole valley floor, and the foothills too, would be carpeted with lupins and poppies … Every petal of blue lupin is edged with white, so that a field of lupins is more blue than you can imagine. And mixed with these were splashes of California poppies. 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 like the color of poppies. 

John Steinbeck|East of Eden

Spring in Monterey County brings wildflowers. Simultaneously bold and delicate, a shining sun of the hillside, roadside, and home garden is the California poppy.  When I lived in the Great Lakes region, I grew beds of perennial alpine and Icelandic poppies, but when I moved west, I was delighted to find these California natives easy to grow and a beautiful addition to a drought tolerant garden.

the lookpoppysingle

California poppies are perennial and grow one to two feet tall with very divided blue-green leaves that make the plants look reminiscent of parsley. The flowers are long-lived with four saucer-shaped petals of vivid orange or yellow and have a spreading green or pinkish “disk-like” receptacle at their base. In our area, we also see the less common Tufted Poppy (Eschscholzia catepitosa) is which is lighter in color but doesn’t have the disk.
closedpoppyThe flowers only open in bright sunlight which earned its early name of “dormidera” meaning  “sleepy one” because the flowers close at night.On cloudy days they open only partially or remain closed.

what’s in a name?

copa de oro

The early Spanish settlers who saw swathes of California poppy ablaze on the coastal hillsides called the plant the “cup of gold” and the California coast the “land of fire.”   As the popularity of the California poppy has grown, so has its many common names: amapolla de california (Spanish), guldvalmue (Danish), Kalifornischer Mohn (German), and pavot de Californie (French).

Eschscholzia californicasinglepoppy

I became addicted to botanical nomenclature in my first plant i.d. class –all those years of thinking plant names were Latin derivatives, only to find out that they can be almost anything. In this case, once I got past the genus, Eschscholzia, the rest was pretty easy to decipher.

Botanist Adelbert von Chamisso named the genus in honor of Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz (1793-1831) of Tartu, Estonia, a physician who accompanied him and Otto von Kotzebue on an expedition round the world. Legend has it that it was the physician who first saw the San Francisco Bay hills aglow with the poppies when their ship landed in 1816.

The species californica, the obvious place-name, is native from the Columbia River area of Oregon and Washington to Baja California and east into Arizona.  Of the four subspecies, what I see most often is Eschscholzia californica ssp. californica var. maritima (growing in coastal areas) which is found along the coast from Monterey down to San Miguel Island.


California poppy flowers are edible. The petals are slightly bitter and can add color to a mixed green salad.  Long before the Europeans came to the New World, the indigenous population used the California poppy as a medicinal aid for toothaches, headaches, stomach aches, and as a sleep aid.  In modern alternative medicine, California poppy is currently used as mild sedative, painkiller, and anti-anxiety remedy.  It is also used to treat colon and gall bladder conditions. Unlike its distant cousin Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, California Poppy contains no opiates, and is non-addictive and safe.

feed the beespoppybee

Honey bees (and their relatives) are drawn to California poppies where they collect pollen which is essential to their diets. The pollen provides nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.  When it is carried back to the hive, nurse bees eat it and then secrete royal jelly used to feed the rest of the hive.  This is the jelly that is harvested for medicinal use.

For more information on bees and California poppies, check out the Bug Squad.

No poet has yet sung the full beauty of our poppy. No painter has successfully portrayed the satiny sheen of its lustrous petals. In its abundance, this colorful plant should not be slighted: cherish it and be ever thankful that so rare a flower is common.

John Thomas Howell|Marin Flora

it’s official

After over 10 years of debate, in 1903 the California poppy was officially named as the state flower of California, and it now  pictured on welcome signs along highways entering California and Scenic Route signs.  April 6 is designated as California Poppy Day.

Being the state flower does not make it illegal to pick a California poppy, though friends had told me this when I moved here.  My short tenure as a State Park employee told me that actually it is against the law to pick any plant —herb, tree or shrub, not just poppies— that is growing on public and private land.

in the gardenpoppycommunity

California poppies are easy additions to a sunny garden.  They do best with direct seeding and do not transplant well.  However, they have been very happy in more xeriscaped landscaping. There are also new varieties available in pastels, whites, reds, and even pinks as well as double petaled.

For more details on their needs check out Plant Natural’s information page.

For seeds check out the varieties at Swallowtail Seeds.


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