There is at least one upside to the severe storms that moved through California in the first months of 2023: heavy rainfall has allowed our wildflowers to blossom in masses. The Central Coast’s roadsides and hiking trails are carpeted with blue and purple lupines, baby blue eyes, purple owl’s clover, radiant yellow goldfields, and plenty of wild mustard. One of the most recognizable wildflowers in California is the golden California poppy, ubiquitous for its striking orange color and its status as the official state flower. In a landscape otherwise dominated by fields of yellow, blue, and purple, the bright orange radiance of the California poppy is hard to miss.
Designated as the official state flower in 1903, the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is native to Western North America. In Chumashan languages, the golden poppy was called “qupe,” and it appeared in a number of early Chumash myths and stories. Indigenous Californians have long used the poppy in food, cosmetics, and sometimes as a very mild sedative, particularly for use with children. The flowers of the California poppy are edible and are sometimes used in salads or as garnish. California poppies don’t have the same narcotic properties that other varieties of poppy, such as the opium poppy, are known for, but they are thought to have mild sedative effects, as is reflected by their traditional usage. For this reason, the flowers are often crushed to use in teas. Some researchers think that the California poppy may also have pain-relieving and anxiety-reducing properties, and some investigation has been done into the plant’s efficacy as a sleep aid. Herbalists have traditionally used the golden poppy for both internal and external pain relief. Whether ingested or applied topically, the plant has been thought by some to help with nerve-associated pains, such as shingles, tooth pain, and menstrual pain. Without getting too scientific, it’s interesting to note that preliminary studies have shown that elements of the California poppy do interact with the chemical receptors in your brain that control sleep, stress, and fear. There haven’t yet been enough studies on the plant to fully establish its effectiveness in medicine, but the plant is often used by herbalists and its chemical properties are of notable interest to researchers – something interesting to think about the next time you drive by a field of golden poppies.
Early Spanish settlers called the flower the “copa de oro,” meaning “cup of gold,” or “dormidera,” meaning “to fall asleep.” “Copa de oro” refers, straightforwardly, to the poppy’s golden, cup-shaped flowers. Some say that the flower’s Spanish name, “dormidera,” which is shortened from the word “adormidera” or “adormir,” refers to the way that their petals close (or fall asleep, in a sense) in the evening and during storms, but others claim that the name refers to the plant’s sleep-inducing properties. The plant was taxonomized with an official Latin name in 1816, when Adelbert von Chamisso, a German botanist and poet on a scientific voyage aboard a Russian ship, wrote about poppies that he had observed in San Francisco’s Presidio. He named the flower “Eschscholzia” after his friend Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, a surgeon and entomologist (someone who studies insects) who was aboard the same voyage. Eighty or so years after Chamisso gave the golden poppy its Latin name, a botanical illustrator named Sara Plummer Lemmon began to advocate for the adoption of the golden poppy as the California state flower and later wrote the poppy’s status into state legislation.
California poppies are fairly easy to grow. They’re easy enough to grow, in fact, that it can be hard to tell which golden poppies are long-standing wildflowers and which are escapees from backyard gardens. Seeds germinate in fall rains and grow in warm spring soils. The poppy’s seasonal longevity depends on the climate in which it grows. In areas that have particularly hot summers, the flowers bloom in early spring and then wilt and go dormant in the summer heat. In cooler coastal climates (like ours), California poppies may remain in bloom for most of the summer. The plant has a taproot, which is a large, fleshy, vertical root that smaller roots may grow off of – the parts of carrots and turnips that we eat, for example, are also taproots. Even when the flower itself dies back, the California poppy can survive as an underground taproot. Poppies can be surprisingly durable; if their taproot remains safe underground, the flower, though it might wither away at the end of its blooming season, will probably grow back the next year. Contrary to what I was taught as a kid, picking a California poppy is not inherently illegal. There’s no specific law prohibiting you from picking the state flower, as long as it’s on your own land. However, the golden poppy’s petals are delicate and are likely to fall off shortly after being picked, so it doesn’t make a very good addition to bouquets.
To us, the California poppy is typically some shade of golden, perhaps more orange in the center and more yellow at the tips of the flowers. To insect pollinators, on the other hand, the flower looks different. Many insects can see ultraviolet (UV) light, which humans cannot see. In the eyes of an insect, a dark circle in the center of the poppy is contrasted with its surrounding petals, which are UV-reflecting. Through this mechanism, insects are directed toward the flower’s pollen. A wide number of flowers are colored in this way, providing a bulls-eye target for pollinators that is invisible to us.
Wildflowers differ in their blooming patterns from year to year. This year, as you may have seen on social media, our unusually wet winter storms brought forth a spring “superbloom.” Since the last superblooms of 2017 and 2019, the botanical event has become a cultural sensation. If you decide to visit any of California’s golden poppy fields during this superbloom season, you can take care of our ecosystem and leave no trace by staying on trails, avoiding picking or trampling on wildflowers, and keeping dogs on-leash. You might be able to spot some of our state’s golden flowers in the Pismo Preserve, Estero Bluffs, Harmony Headlands, or Hearst San Simeon State Parks, and they’re a fairly common sight on a hike in Montaña de Oro.
If you’re interested in learning more about our local wildflowers, head over to the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History and check out our newest exhibit, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change,” on display until September 17.