by Michelle Le Strange,
UC Master Gardener Advisor
California's state flower is the bright orange California poppy
(Eschscholzia californica). It was selected over the Mariposa
lily (genus Calochortus) and the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri)
by the CA State Floral Society in Dec 1890, with state legislators
making it official in 1903. Its golden blooms were deemed a fitting
symbol for the Golden State.
Legends and Facts: The CA poppy was botanically named
for a German surgeon and botanist (Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz)
traveling with a Russian expedition that dropped anchor in San
Francisco Bay in 1815, when hillsides were covered in poppies.
Early Spanish settlers called the flower "copa del ora"
(cup of gold) after the legend that the orange petals, turned
to gold and filled the soil with the precious metal.
It turns out that the CA poppy is native to grassy and open areas
from sea level to 6,500 feet altitude throughout California, but
its range also extends to Oregon, southern Washington, Nevada,
Arizona, New Mexico, Sonora Mexico and northwest Baja California.
Plants grow 2-24 inches tall, with branching, divided, blue-green
foliage. Flowers are solitary on long stems, silky-textured, with
four distinctly large petals. Petal color ranges from yellow to
orange, and flowering is from February to September. Flowers close
at night and on cloudy, overcast days. The fruit is a slender
capsule, which splits in two to release the numerous small black
or dark brown seeds. It is perennial in mild parts of its native
range, and annual in colder climates; growth is best in full sun
and sandy, well-drained, poor soil.
The CA poppy grows well in disturbed areas and often recolonizes
after fires. In addition to being planted for horticulture, revegetation,
and highway beautification, it often colonizes along roadsides
and other disturbed areas. It is drought-tolerant, self-seeding,
and easy to grow in gardens. It can't be beat for naturalizing
on sunny hillsides, country gardens, or in dry fields, but perhaps
is not the best choice for manicured landscaped beds viewed up
close, unless the garden style is CA natives and drought tolerant
A common myth associated with the plant is that cutting or otherwise
damaging the CA poppy is illegal because it is a state flower.
There is no such law. However, there is a state law that makes
it a misdemeanor to cut or remove any flower, tree, shrub
or other plant growing on state or county highways, with
an exception for authorized government employees and contractors
(CA Penal Code Section 384a).
Uses: Besides floral beauty, CA poppy leaves were used
medicinally by Native Americans, and the pollen was used cosmetically;
seeds are used in cooking. Extract from the CA poppy can act as
a mild sedative, but contains a completely different class of
alkaloids from the opium poppy.
Cultivars: Horticulturalists have produced numerous cultivars
with various petal colors and blossom and stem forms. These typically
do not breed true on reseeding, in other words they revert back
to orange-yellow flowers. Some of the more common varieties listed
in Sunset's Western Garden Book include:
'Apricot Flambeau' with fiery shades of lemon, cream and
apricot with intense, flame colored coral edges and smoky, grey-green
The 'Ballerina' series has frilly, double flowers in shades
of yellow, orange, rose and scarlet.
'Carmine King' offers flowers in shades of deep pink with
'Champagne & Roses' is a Thompson and Morgan introduction,
with fluted flowers in shades of pink, from champagne to deep
rose. The backs of the pale petals are a darker pink giving a
'Golden Tears' bears single golden yellow blooms on trailing
stems to 2 ft. long.
'Inferno' offers orange scarlet blooms.
'Mission Bells' is a semi-double mix of pastel yellow,
pink and orange with lightly ruffled petals.
Names like 'Cherry Ripe', 'Milky White', and 'Purple Cap'
describe flower color.
'Orange King' is an improved variety of the species with
earlier, longer lasting flowers of glowing orange.
'Thai Silk Mix' is a dwarf strain with 1½ inch ruffled,
semi-double blooms in a showy mix of colors and bronze-tinted
CA poppies tend to make their greatest shows on grazed hillsides
since the animals avoid eating the bitter-tasting plants and eliminate
most of the poppy's competition. Several locations offer spectacular
poppy show each year, including the "Grapevine," along
Interstate 5 where it winds its way past Gorman at the northern
edge of Los Angeles County.
The CA poppy has been transported to many other parts of the
world, both as a garden plant and inadvertently. Once California's
Gold Rush ended, miners set sail for new opportunities in Chile,
New Zealand, and Australia. Using sand from the bluffs at San
Francisco as ballast for their ships, they transported poppy seeds
to these other places. Unfortunately they are sometimes considered
a widespread weed.