- Author: Patricia Matteson
Yes, the California poppy is a flower, not a lizard, but the point is its startling diversity of color, reminiscent of chameleons and other creatures with coats of many colors. But, you say, an individual chameleon can change its color, which flowering plants are not known for. Well guess what? A poster on the wall of the Visitor Center at Antelope Valley California Poppy State Natural Reserve shows a poppy flower with an orange center and a yellow border, and reads:
“Note the color variation in the petals. The color in the petal is due to 2 genes. Basic color is yellow. Secondary color is a more intense orange which masks the yellow. As the soil dries and available chemicals in soil change, the orange chromophores shrink and the yellow shows through.”
The deep orange of the poppies in that reserve (almost brick red in some lights), the yellow/orange variability one commonly sees in natural areas, and garden cultivars sold as California poppies that run to red, pink, and white got me wondering: are all of those really a single species? My curiosity was further whetted by realizing that I was not even sure whether California poppies are annual or perennial plants. Internet research revealed that Eschscholtzia californica Cham. is a single multifaceted species. In his 1909 Flora of California, pioneering botanist Willis Linn Jepson (Solano County's Jepson Prairie is named for him) delivered this verdict on the extreme variability of the California poppy's vegetative organs and habits:
“…now understood in the light of present investigations inevitably to be considered as a single species, since there are no two factors constantly associated. Examination and comparison of long series of specimens from the same locality and from different localities in all parts of California in connection with data derived from cultures and from experiments with hundreds of marked plants growing naturally prove satisfactorily that these variations may occur in endlessly varied and indefinite combinations.”
It turns out that California poppy plants can present as either annual or perennial, depending on the environment. In an extremely hot or cold climate, the plants are annual. Where mild temperatures prevail, they are perennial. The onset of hot weather may cause the plants to go dormant, with regrowth and even rebloom possible when cool weather returns.
Notably, California poppies thrive under sunny, dry conditions. Last year, in the depths of our long drought, I admired pint-sized plants crowded along rural roads and blooming their little hearts out, lining the routes with their glow. This species will cope well with climate change. No better choice could have been made back in 1903, when the “Golden Poppy” was adopted as California's state flower.
Jepson, W.L. 1909. A Flora of California. Cunningham, Curtis & Welch, San Francisco. Pp. 564-572. https://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/display_page?page=580&elib_id=3061&format=jpeg viewed 5/2/23.
Lepp, G. D. 2004. Golden Poppies of California. Lepp and Associates, Los Osos, CA.
McIntosh, J. Updated 2023. The Spruce, How to Grow California Poppies, https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-grow-and-care-for-california-poppies-4686987 viewed 5/2/2023.