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