Plant profile – Eschscholzia californica, the California Poppy

A mass of silvery-green soft frondy foliage with more than a dozen orange-yellow flowers spread across it and many long spike-like seed pods hanging down near the edge of the bush.

A California poppy bush (Eschscholzia) doin’ its thang. The long spikes are seed pods. This plant is backed by many “normal” (Papaver) red poppies which also self-seed in this bed, but the red poppies are dry and dead by the time Remembrance Day arrives. The Eschscholzia is still going strong.

This is the state flower of California. It grows in gorgeous meadows there, lighting up hills golden-orange when in season. It’s native to an area around California, Arizona, Mexico, the Sonoran Desert – that sort of thing. It’s one of the plants that makes me homesick for the few months I lived in that area (I have fond memories of the Anza-Borrego Desert and the smell of sagebrush).

Eschscholzia is in the poppy family, but it’s not the same genus as the red poppy (Papaver) we know from Flanders Fields. And its chemical properties are rather different than the poppy we think of for medicinal and edible uses. It does appear to be non-toxic, and the USDA’s info page mentions chewing the flowers like gum. There is some limited information suggesting Native American usage, mainly of the leaves, but different tribes had inconsistent beliefs about appropriate uses. And that information is further confounded by people making assumptions that one poppy species is just like another and combining their ideas about usage from multiple species and genuses. Wikipedia falls down on that – someone’s described the seeds as edible and used in cooking, but the reference they give for it talks only about the leaves and makes no comment about the seeds at all. There have been some early-stage attempts to test the actual medicinal properties and indigenous uses of the plant, but the tests are mostly not human-applicable so it’s a long way from scientifically and reliably demonstrated and quantified.

What the Internet *does* have lots of reliable information on is growing it in gardens as an ornamental. It’s a darn pretty flower that likes hot weather, dry summers and low-nutrient-well-drained soil. Which sounds like Perth all over. My mother had it on her verge for years. It just came up every season when it was ready, we didn’t have to do much except mulch occasionally. The kids’ daycare lady has it in her garden too, one of the many self-seeding plants she has that come up every autumn and flower madly once the day length gets greater than 12 hours. The California Poppy has a taproot along with its surface roots, so in areas where it can reach groundwater then it can grow as a perennial. But it does tend to grow as an annual if it’s only got access to winter rainfall or if the winters are a bit cold. The seed pods shed seed easily and freely – they actually explode when ready, sending seed up to six metres away from the parent plant – so it’ll happily reseed itself for each new season.

That would make it a challenging bushland weed if it escaped. But: it hasn’t seemed to do so that I know of.  That may be because it’s easily outcompeted by grasses. It only has a limited fibrous surface root system, and it tends to germinate at the same time as annual grasses. The thicker and more extensive surface roots of the grasses tend to win out – scientific tests found that in mixed plantings the grasses cut down the poppy germination numbers and seed yield significantly but the poppy numbers had virtually no effect on the grass germination or seed yield. Unless the soil was deep enough that the poppies could reach sufficient soil volume well below, and then even though germination was still quite limited, the poppies that did grow produced a normal amount of seed. Eschscholzia does apparently grow well though in the company of yarrow and lupins among others, in its native habitat. And while several bits of research say that its range is limited by the fact it can’t compete well with other plants, it makes up for that in adaptability – it will grow in a surprising range of conditions and put up with a lot of inexperience from its gardener. About the only thing it won’t put up with is waterlogging, it would rather you forget to water it.

Ecologically, I’m not sure what function this plant can fill for my drylands food forest. In its native area it isn’t a major resource for wildlife, small animals don’t really eat it. And there’s some evidence that it is toxic to livestock. It does have enough pollen though to support a wide variety of insect life (it’s insect-pollinated) so it might be good for attracting beneficial insects.

A flower with four broad slightly wrinkled red-to-orange petals is just left of centre. Around it is finely divied almost feathery silver-grey-green foliage. Just behind the upper right petal is a closed flower bud.

This is the red cultivar I’ve planted one lone plant of in the garden. Its flowers are distinctly redder than the usual golden-orange. Its silvery foliage makes a lovely light contrast and foil under the olive tree.

I do want to grow this plant. I haven’t yet got a reason to justify its presence, other than that I think it will cope with the conditions very well and be very pretty. And that’s all good but I would like an ecological function or productive use for it as well before I try hard to introduce it. I have planted one red hybrid (there are many colour hybrids now) by the olive tree and I’ll wait to see what happens with that – I think having the red poppy there mixed with the chickpeas (and hopefully next year asparagus pea) will work really well. The foliage colour and texture combination is beautiful. But they don’t breed true to flower colour so I’ll be interested to see what colours I get next year.

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2 Responses to Plant profile – Eschscholzia californica, the California Poppy

  1. Holly says:

    How about it’s usefulness at a living mulch? It grows low and thick, so could grow around and underneath other plants to keep out weeds and hold in moisture. Plus, be plants die back and break down easily with their feathery foliage, so thereby quickly build soil hummus.

    • tikiwanderer says:

      I’m finding it does work reasonably well for that, ish – it does help protect bare areas of soil but it has its limitations. It doesn’t like the tough spaces that much so doesn’t seem to pioneer very well. But it is certainly helping hold the ground I’ve already gained.

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