May 7, 2017

CA Poppies from El Chorro Regional Park, San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden featuring plants from the Mediterranean region, California, Chile, South Africa and Australia (Watercolor and colored pencil on cold press illustration board) This piece of art was originally published in the 4/22/01 Central Living section of the SLO Tribune.

Eschscholzia californica! I usually embarrass myself when I try to say this, especially when speaking with my horticulturally savvy friends. California poppies! Much better, and so much easier to say! The California poppy is such a perky and amazing looking state flower. And poppies are orange, a color that most people don’t really like. I mean, I don’t think I have ever had someone tell me it was their favorite color. Most people I know like to eat orange food like oranges and carrots, but it’s not because of the color. Poppies look quite delicate up close—the petals are really very thin, but they are pretty sturdy. And if you can get them to reseed they will pop up every spring in glorious and ever expanding profusion.

California poppies are probably one of my favorite wildflowers and I think every gardener in California should have a patch somewhere in the garden. Poppies are easy to care for as long as you don’t water or tend them. Of course once they are done blooming, they look like a bunch of dead weeds. But there is a great reason to have an untended weedy part of your garden. This is where the good bugs for your garden can hang out, away from pesticides and gardens that are too tidy. So, sprinkle some wild flower seeds in the winter and see what happens in early spring. (Of course getting them to reseed can be a bit of a trick, but keep trying). When I worked for Addison Wesley, in Menlo Park, some years ago I threw out lupine seeds at the front of one of the buildings. It was fun to see those amazing purple flowers pop up among the weeds that spring. I don’t know if there are any there today, but it is always a possibility.

When I was a girl there were rules about our state flower in the golden state. You weren’t supposed to pick them. Of course, as a girl, I wondered who was going to find out if you did. Were there poppy police hiding in the huge drifts of bright orange flowers in the hills of Los Altos? Even without the threat of fine or imprisonment it doesn’t make sense to pick them because once you break off a stem they almost immediately begin to wilt—even if you immediately put them in water. Don’t tell anyone that I know this to be true from personal experience. And whatever you do, don’t put lupines in water! They don’t wilt like poppies, but they give off quite a stink. Don’t know of any law about picking lupines, but be warned if you do!

Once, when my mom and I were driving north on 5 we came to magnificent fields of poppies and lupines on either side of the highway at the Grapevine. My mom and I guessed that an airplane had dropped tons of wildflower seeds on the hills and we were lucky enough to pass through at the height of their glory. I don’t know if that actually happened, but my mom and I were in the moment and so enchanted with the color–we were sure that’s exactly what had happened. There used to be scenic highway “poppy” signs along Highway 1 and 101. I haven’t seen one for a long time. I Googled the CA flower sign just a minute ago and saw one for sale on eBay for a lot of money. I don’t even know what that means. Not sure I really care about or miss those signs, but I would miss seeing the real thing if they didn’t occasionally cover a huge field or mountainside, or pop up between the cracks of an old untended sidewalk.

Note about fires and wildflowers in California: Strange as it may seem, wildflowers can be a reminder of the fires we have here. Before my son was born there was a huge fire in the Oakland hills. Homes burned to the ground and that fire blackened the hills on either side of Highway 24. But by the following spring huge batches of orange blanketed much of that ground, especially around Grizzly Peak Road on the way to Tilden Park. I don’t know if the heat of the fire helped the poppy seeds germinate (like it can with other wildflower species), but the sight of bright orange clusters of flowers next to the blackened soil was so sharp it almost hurt my eyes to look at it.

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