by Matt Gibson
The golden poppy became known as the California poppy when the state of California adopted the flower as their state flower in 1903. The lovely golden orange perennial is one of the first wildflowers to be cultivated in gardens. Also known as Flame Flower, la amapola, and Copa de Oro (cup of gold), flanders poppy, corn poppy, Iceland poppy, oriental poppy, and golden poppy, the bright orange flower sets the California hills ablaze from early spring to late fall.
Poppy Day is celebrated on April 6th each year, and May 13th through May 18th is Poppy Week. Though most commonly seen in golden orange, the California poppy can also be found in shades of bronze, scarlet, terra-cotta, white, and rose. The bright blooms of the poppy are perched atop foot high silvery-green foliage. The plant is a slight bit wider than it is tall, with flowers that stretch one to two inches wide, each consisting of four fan-shaped petals and a group of stamens. The foliage is divided into narrow segments on long stalks with three to four inch fern-like leaves. California poppy grows naturally in open areas, grassy, and sandy slopes.
The flower is not exclusive to California, however, but can be found from southern California to southern Washington, and as far east as Texas. Native Americans from California loved the Golden poppy, and used it as a source of food and extracted oil from the plant for medicinal purposes.
It is important to address the distinction between the California poppy and Papaver somniferum. The milky sap of Papaver somniferum’s unripened seed pods is the primary source of opiate drugs, such as morphine, opium, codeine, and heroin. Though the two species are cousins, the sap of the California poppy is non-narcotic. It does have mild sedative properties, but not nearly as powerful as its illegal-to-grow cousin.
Poppy seeds, also called maw seeds are used for flavoring in baking, ground for flour, and are commonly found in birdseed. Poppy oil, which is derived from Golden poppy seeds, is used in cooking, and as an additive in paints, varnishes, and soaps.
The Poppy symbolizes peace, death and sleep, and is one of the most important flowers in mythology. The poppy also symbolizes rest and recovery, consolation for loss and death, remembrance of fallen soldiers, peace in death, imagination, messages gleaned from dreaming, resurrection and immortality, beauty, success, extravagance, wealth, and luxury.
Varieties of California Poppy
There are many different types of poppy flowers, but only three types of Golden Poppy. California Golden is the classic bright orange poppy seen all across the hills of California, especially in the southern regions. Mission Bells poppy is available in a wide range of sherbet shades like pink, salmon, and cream, and some hybrids even have semi-double blooms. Golden West poppy is a hybrid of the classic orange flower that is known as California Golden, and is only available in orange, set apart from the original only by its darker center.
Growing Conditions for California Poppy
As with many native wildflowers, California poppies are easy to care for and maintain when grown in their native regions, or when provided with a habitat that mimics their native environment. For the California poppy, the old adage, “less is more,” is truly applicable, as it is more important to focus on what you don’t give the poppy more than what you do provide it. California poppies need less water, less warmth, and less soil nutrition. The less they are given, the more they will become self-reliant, and will even begin to self-sow around the garden in places you wouldn’t expect to see them.
A full six hours of unfiltered sunlight is essential and more is even better, so pick a bright sunny location for your poppies. Though some California poppies may survive in shady locations, they will look tarnished and leggy, and will be more prone to developing fungal diseases than their sunbathing brethren. Golden poppies prefer poor soil conditions to rich soil, but will survive in any soil type except for heavy clay soils, as their tap roots require good drainage. If you have a clay-rich soil, try your poppies out in raised beds with altered soil or containers.
If temperatures are mild, or between 50 and 75 degrees F, California poppies will continue to grow and bloom each spring. In areas with hot summer climates, they will become dormant during the summer instead of continuing to bloom through the season. When cool temperatures return, so will your poppies, regrowing and re-blooming from their tap roots.
Care of California Poppy
California poppies don’t need very much water to thrive, and are practically drought-tolerant. Spring rainfall is usually enough to irrigate the plants sufficiently. In areas with hot summers, the plants will go dormant and will need no additional water during the summer months. Only water California poppies during droughts or extremely dry periods.
No fertilizer is needed for California poppies, even in poor soil conditions. Adding fertilizer to your soil will cause additional foliage growth and less focus on blooms.
How To Grow California Poppy In Containers
When growing California poppies in containers, start from seed. Golden Poppies have long tap roots and hate to be transplanted. Treat container poppies like you would any hardy annual, pulling them up when they’re done blooming, as they will most likely die over winter in a container. If you want to try to keep them alive, bring them indoors during the winter and let them go dormant and gradually reintroduce them to the outdoors the following spring.
How To Plant California Poppy
Plant poppy seeds directly into the ground in a bright sunny location after the last threat of frost has passed. Press the seeds into the soil gently with your fingers and water gently to keep from dislodging the tiny seeds. The warming of the soil in spring and light spring rains will help to trigger germination, which should occur in about two weeks. You can tell the poppies from weeds by noticing the bluish-green tint of poppy foliage, so pull the weeds up and thin poppy seedlings to about eight inches apart.
Garden Pests and Diseases of California Poppy
California poppies can contract several diseases, especially in a location that endures heavy, or excessive rain or overwatering. Mold, stem rot, and mildew can all affect poppy plants grown in wet habitats. Antifungal applications can help subdue some of the issues that come with overwatering, but the best defense against these diseases is planting your poppies in locations that receive full sunlight exposure and maintaining a well-draining soil to help keep your poppies as dry as possible. There are no known pest issues that affect the California poppy.