The flower that captivates me and drives me to commit petty crimes is the poppy. Parchment petals. Rainbow chalices. Lanterns of delight entice me so.
When traveling, I am prone to scanning the landscape for that familiar hit of color. “Stop the car” I shout when I see an exciting prospect. Years ago my husband used to respond with a disoriented “what???” but 10 years into my antics he dutifully glides the car to the shoulder. A few years ago, in May, we were in Boulder, Colorado. Poppies were everywhere and many were the size of fists. As we rode around town my face was plastered to the window. “Look at that one, and that one, and that…”
But despite several glides to the side of the road I was disappointed to find there were blooms but no seedpods to be found. And seed pods is what I had to have- so that I might have these delights in my own yard. Then on our last day we were driving on a sunny east west road through town and I spotted a few dried pods–small shamanistic drums ready to be plucked.
A crazy U turn later I stepped furtively onto the sprawling emerald green lawn of a mid century ranch house. I expected my first footprint to ripple out and set off some sort of turf alarm but nothing happened. I stole over to a mound of flowers, and smooth river rocks- the lawn centerpiece. In complete disregard for the homeowner’s curated botanicals I grasped the stalk with bear hands and tore seed heads from their stalk. Milky sap spewed across my fingers. Success!!
Those seeds made it home, wrapped in a clean-enough napkin, and the following fall I placed them in my garden. A plant came up the following spring but produced no flowers. But this spring it came back and produced the very first buds, helped along by cool weather and unseasonable rains.
As much as I love poppies over the years I have found growing them to be a frustrating. Some years they come up en mass and some years I have only a scraggly few. For example last year I had a whole bed of California poppies, this year only one came back. I have dumped upwards of 20 packets poppies around the yard and the vast majority did not come up at all.
In observing patterns of failures and successes I realized that the times the poppies did take there were similarities in conditions. The very best crop of poppies I ever had was right after we re-did our yard and had an empty bed of really poor rocky soil. I spread poppy seeds and the resulting field had me ignoring my family for weeks.
“Where is mom?”
“ Taking MORE pictures of poppies.”
What I learned is that poppies really like newly disturbed soil, and they absolutely need light to germinate. Crowded, shady beds are no good because faster growing plants out compete the poppy for sun. Brand new beds are great. Beds reserved only for poppies are good.
Some poppies, like the ones I pilfered in Boulder, prefer cool damp weather. Others, like the ones I plucked last summer from the sidewalk cracks in a nearby neighborhood, thrive in parking lot heat. In fact I spread those seeds up and down my street. There is no access to water and nothing but concrete all around. I spread them in a rocky area and they took. In fact they are thriving.
Many poppy varieties thrive in harsh growing conditions. The classic red and black Flanders poppies are know for growing between World War I trench lines in battle disturbed soil. Although even the Flanders poppy had limits. In some place they stopped growing for a few years after the war because the soil was so completely compacted my machine and man. But they did eventually return. And then there is the super hardy California poppy. It is said that Spanish explorers spotted poppy golden hills from thirty five miles out at sea.
Perhaps in another life I was on the ship with the Spanish as they approached the California coast. Maybe I , miles from shore, stood dumbstruck at the sight of shimmering poppy covered hills and whispered “tiera del fuego” (land of fire). Or perhaps I stood on the shore, knee deep in gold, harvesting seeds and stalks to dry for tea. Or maybe I was battle weary soldier who sketched poppies in the margins of letters home.
Who knows. But my love of this tender flower is old and deep and my trespassing habit is here to stay.
If you are fascinated by the opium poppy then you might enjoy this amusing essay by Michael Pollan:
In terms of the medicinal qualities of California Poppy: Rosemary Gladstar, treasured herbalist, says in her book Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health “It is quite gentle in it’s action and excellent in establishing equilibrium and calming nervous and excitability. California poppy is especially recommended for children who have difficulty sleeping and who are overly excitable.”
You can purchase California poppy tinctures or dry the seeds, leaves and flowers and prepare as tea.
My original poppy garden, several years ago:
The same space now (new concrete border). Only one poppy came up in this bed this year grow because they are out competed by Mexican primrose and yarrow.
Current poppy growing area:
Poppy from Boulder:
Poppies I have spread along street. Unknown variety:
Various poppy pictures I have taken:
And my all time favorite garden picture: