Springtime in California is heralded by a glorious burst of color as the state flower, the California poppy (Escholtzia californica), blooms in a continuous wave from south to north. California poppy grows in almost any soil type and climatic zone including inland deserts, foggy coasts, and the high meadows of the Sierra. It is happy in a cow pasture or along a highway road cut, and it’s extremely easy to grow in your garden, too.
California poppy is usually an annual: blooming, spreading seed, and dying in just a few months, although in our mild winters it may persist as a perennial for several years. Its gray-green foliage forms a ferny rosette about 8 to 12 inches tall topped by flower stalks that grow several inches higher. Each flower lasts just a few days, but the show continues as more are produced through several weeks or more. Once this first wave has passed, cut the whole plant down and another surge will follow.
You don’t have to settle for the plain (though shining) orange variety, either; there are some fabulous selections that range from palest ivory to lemon yellow, fire-engine red, even lavender. Some varieties are crimped and crinkled; some are semi-double. Escholtzia californica ‘Alba’ is the palest selection available. The creamy white flowers have a touch of yellow in the center. One shade above are two other species of native poppy, E. caespitosa (small, pale yellow blossoms) and E. lobbii, also called “frying pans” (sunshine yellow). On the other end of the spectrum are ‘Red Chief’ — a fiery red selection — and ‘Rose Chiffon,’ whose cherry-rose blossoms have a few more than the usual four petals, making them almost fluffy. Another semi-double cultivar with mellow orange flowers is ‘Apricot Chiffon.’ It provides a great foil for other wild or domesticated subjects with blue or lavender flowers. The selection ‘Purple Gleam’ flaunts shades of violet and lavender. Many of these varieties will revert to the dominant orange color of the species after a season or two. Simply root or prune out the throwbacks. One great source for seed is a new hot nursery named Annie’s (anniesannuals.com).