Having moved to Oregon from Michigan this past spring, one of my first memories of the state was the explosion of bright orange and yellow flowers lining the interstate and covering the hills. These ubiquitous flowers were, of course, California poppies (Escscholzia californica). Native to a range covering southern Washington south to the Sonoran Desert, the plant has spread throughout most of North America and onto other continents thanks to human intervention (1). This should come to no surprise to those familiar with the plant, because it is easy to grow and thrives in average soil, as long as drainage is good and there is plenty of sun (3).
California poppies can be grown as perennials or annuals, depending on the severity of the winters (3). The grey-green, finely divided foliage erupts with brightly colored flowers in the spring, but can continue flowering across the growing season if conditions are favorable (1). Long, spindly seed pods appear quickly following pollination and, once dry, easily explode, spreading baby poppies up to six feet away from the parent plant (1). If you’re looking to add these beauties to your own garden, it is best to spread seeds on the surface of the soil in the fall to ensure that dormancy is broken (1). But gardener beware: once established, California poppies are around for the long haul (3).
These flowers have been grown or collected for hundreds of years by the societies that have encountered them (1). Indigenous North Americans first used the plants for a variety of medicinal purposes and the plant quickly rose to fame in Victorian gardens after it was collected by David Douglas for the Royal Botanical Society of England in 1836 (1, 3). Western medicine has also found use of the California poppy, isolating over 30 chemicals for uses ranging from anti-bacterial agents to the treatment of cancer (1). For horticultural purposes, the Royal Horticultural Society today recommends planting along borders, for cut flowers, to create a sense of informality as in a cottage garden, as well as for gravel and rock gardens (4).
The act of gardening is unique in that it strikes a balance between control of and surrender to the natural world. On the one hand, the plants we decide to grow on our little slices of paradise are an irrevocable extension of us and our own stories; however, these plants have their own stories to tell and they transform us into participants of these stories whether we are willing or not. I’ve never heard anyone say, for example, that they planted such-and-such prize-winning hosta to attract deer to their garden. Yet, when these majestic 150-pound creatures sneak silently into our yards for a midnight snack, it’s hard to argue they weren’t invited. The plants we choose act as our ambassadors to a biotic world just beyond our grasp, providing food and habitat for a full spectrum of wildlife. On a larger scale, the landscapes we cultivate can collectively affect everything from water resources to the climate.
While it’s true that I’ve never heard anyone say they are planting for the deer, us gardeners have certainly taken a liking to another sort of creature. The insects of the Anthophila clade, otherwise known as the bees, have found a special place in our hearts. Maybe writer Michael Pollan was on to something when he recognized, in The Botany of Desire, the mirrored way in which the bees visiting his garden had found themselves in the servitude of the plants just as he was. While the gardener tends to the plants’ every need, the bee unwittingly ensures their reproductive success by transporting pollen from flower to flower. Or maybe its the recognition that we ultimately depend on pollinators for our own food security and survival. Whatever the underlying cause behind our species’ admiration of bees, cultivating a diversity of flowers is the surest way to invite them to and help them persist in our landscapes.
Whether you sow the seeds of the California poppy simply for its beauty, for its natural history, to help prevent erosion, or for any other reason, you will also inevitably be providing a source of food for our favorite insects, the bees. Surprisingly California poppies don’t provide nectar for pollinators, just pollen, but they are still heavily visited by our native bumblebees, sweat bees, and mining bees, as well as the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) (1, 2). They are also visited by beautiful butterflies, beneficial minute pirate bugs, and glistening beetles (1). Additionally, from our observations at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center, I can personally attest to the California poppy’s popularity amongst a variety of syrphid flies.
As a student interested in creating functional habitat for both humans and wildlife, it truly matters little to me on its face if a plant is native or not. Gardens consisting of native plants can be just as gorgeous and moving as gardens consisting of exotic species — this is true. What does matter to me are the relationships these plants have with other organisms, and what that looks like in a world increasingly and unavoidably modified by humans. So, whether or not you decide to bring the California poppy or any other native plants into your own garden, I hope you do feel inspired to think about these plants in terms of their role in the wider community of life with which we share this planet.
- Smith, C. 2010. Plant guide for California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Materials Center. Lockeford, CA 95237.
- Garvey, Kathy Keatley. “Why Honey Bees Forage in California Poppies.” Bug Squad: Happenings in the Insect World, University of California, 18 Mar. 2014, ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=13179.
- Nelson, Julie. “California poppy (Eschscholzia californica).” Plant of the Week, USDA Forest Service Rangeland Management & Vegetation Ecology – Botany Program, www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/eschscholzia_californica.shtml.
- “Eschscholzia californica.” Royal Horticultural Society, www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/106119/Eschscholzia-californica/Details.