Ode To The Stately California Golden Poppy

A pair of California Golden Poppies in full bloom. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

As summer approaches and the vernal showtime for most of California's native flora approaches its finale, no plant this season had gotten my care and attention like the California Golden Poppy. For it has been 110 years after the state legislature made official its status as The Golden State's flower that I had finally been successful at growing them en masse.

For those of us who aren't botanists or experienced gardeners, the Golden Poppy is just another orange-colored pretty flower, emblazoned on our state's welcome signs, and having large, public habitats dedicated to it. But we tend to think nothing of it beyond that. For the orange-petaled wonder reveals a relatively unique method of growth and regeneration.

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In addition to the ones growing on the grounds of my local library, my mom took an interest in having them in her garden, and asked me, the default native plant expert in the family, to sow some poppy seeds in a section of her garden that she had prepared in anticipation of cultivating our indigenous state flower.

The sight of seeing "Y"-shaped seedlings peek out of the ground, and the growth of the finger-like leaves was fascinating enough, but the real excitement was, after nearly two months of growing, seeing the wizard hat-like floral bud protrude from the leafy sea of green. To my mom's delight, the first flower bloomed right around her birthday in late April, a well-timed present manufactured by nature.

And then, there were more. Within days, more blooms came forth. My mom's garden became a micro-sized poppy field. One fascinating aspect of the poppies is that the flowers are photo- and thermo- sensitive; during colder weather, at night and during overcast days, the bulb contracts into a tight roll, only to open up again during brighter and warmer conditions.

But much like the promise of prospector's gold, or the duration of sudden Hollywood fame, the iconic beauty of the California Golden Poppy is all but fleeting. Each individual flower lasts but a few days, though long enough to be pollenated by industrious and thirsty bees, wasps, and (hopefully, when I'm not looking) hummingbirds. After which, the petals naturally fall off. A few days of high winds hastened the process.

But just days after that, the flower is effectively replaced by a slender, elongated green growth, 2-3 inches long, pointing towards the sun. This relative plant newbie finally figured out what it was: the poppy's seed pod. If harvested, the seeds can be stored for next season's plantings, or will end up on the top of someone's bagel. But in the wild, the seed pods literally explode -- literally putting the "pop" in poppy -- through a process called dehiscence, which casts the seeds onto a wide perimeter, ensuring the growth of future generations of plants.

iPod? No, a California Golden Poppy seed pod. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Right now, the appearance of flowers has tapered off, and some of the leaves are wilting away. Some savvy gardeners have employed methods such as cutting back leaves and re-watering, which is intended to yield further growth and florescence -- something I'll definitely try for the sake of honing my green thumb.

But in the wild, the poppies are only hydrated by fall and winter rains, and their seeds go dormant until the next rains come along.

I combed through my mom's miniature poppy field for some seed pods. The first one still contained immature seeds, most of which were green in color instead of the expected black. Another pod, taking on a dried appearance and lacking the green hue the other seed pod had, instantly split open like a booby trap upon being handled. But with Goldilocks-like luck, the third one I found was still intact but had mature black seeds after being manually opened.

I made a rough count of the seeds inside; there were probably around 40, give or take some. I'll gather more of these pods, and maybe throw some of the seeds in a nearby empty, blighted lot come October, hoping to create a pleasant visual surprise in the late winter or early spring. I'm sure there will be more than enough left over for both the library garden and mom's mini poppy field.

And that's the beauty of it: For every California Golden Poppy you invest in, you'll eventually be rewarded fortyfold.

About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Managing Editor of KCET's 50th Anniversary website and writes the "Transpacific Routes" and "Concrete and Chaparral" columns on KCET's blogs.
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