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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: Poppy Surprises | 03-23-2017
Santa Clarita CA
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Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Mar 23, 2017

Let’s imagine you have a new neighbor. He is middle-aged, very reserved, and you wave at each other only when you pull out the garbage cans for the weekly pickup. One evening you notice three black cars in his driveway. They stay for about an hour, and you never see your neighbor again. There was obviously more than met the eye about this quiet neighbor.

I felt about the same way a few weeks ago while hiking with some friends. We were high up on the mountain, looking with deep appreciation at the golden glow from the poppies covering some ridges across from us. Poppies were in bloom: nice, pretty … end of story. Then one of the plant experts from my group turned to me and asked, “Do you know that poppies have pollen, so it is a great plant for bees, but they have no nectar, so they are not good for butterflies?”

I felt like the carpet had been pulled from under my feet. That common, reliable poppy was not so commonplace after all. They fooled me all these years.

I was rather unsettled. I came home to Google “poppies,” and you have no idea how much interesting information I found.


Tehachapi Mountains

Many flowers are pollinated by insects, so there is nothing unusual there for the poppies, which are indeed fertilized by insects. What is more unusual is the kind of insects that play an important part in doing this job. It seems the specific fragrance of the poppies attracts beetles more than any other insects, and they are the pollinator for poppies.

That took me by surprise. Beetles?

I learned that the Indians used our local poppy as a medicinal plant. They would boil it in water or roast the plant and then add it to water. The result of this “tea” would produce a drug similar to morphine, and it was used for headaches, insomnia and as a mild sedative. It has a bitter taste and is similar to chamomile. The effects are far milder than opium because the California poppy contains a different class of alkaloids – and please do not try that at home. The Chumash made poultice out of the pods to stop breast milk. The root was used for toothache and a concoction of the flowers to kill lice.

The Spanish word for California poppy is “cupa de oro” or “cup of gold.” It refers to the shape of the flower but also to the medicinal value. A cup of this tea would make you feel better. They knew that all along, and the name was an interesting play on words.

The seeds continue to be used in cooking. The seeds are held in a hard capsule that splits in two to release the many tiny black or brown seeds. The seeds can lie on the ground for years if the conditions for germination are not good – not enough sun or water. They will germinate only when conditions are favorable. That has taken a few gardeners by surprise, discovering a bunch of poppies growing suddenly, years after the seeds were spread in an unwelcoming spot.

The flowers of the poppy can be a weather indicator. How does that work? The blossoms are responsive to sunlight, and they will open wide only on bright, sunny days. They remain closed on cloudy days and start closing at sunset, even on sunny days. They are always closed during the night.

The California poppy was selected as the state flower in 1890. The two other flowers considered were the Mariposa lily and the Matilija poppy, but the California poppy was selected by a wide margin. It seems we have Sarah Plummer Lemmon to thank for that. She mounted a great campaign to have the Californian poppy accepted. However, the selection was only official in 1903. The golden bloom is seen on freeway signs entering California as a welcome sign and along the roads on our “scenic route” signs.

The flowers are protected, and you cannot pick them in the wild. You can pick only the ones you’ve seeded in your garden.

The seeds need to be on the ground for this wonderful carpet of little golden faces to pop up each year. If you pick the flowers before they drop their seeds, they will become fewer and fewer with each passing year.

We have a wonderful local opportunity to enjoy fields of poppies covering the hills like golden velvet at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve (661-724-1180). Park hours are from sunrise to sunset. The reserve is located 15 miles west of Lancaster at 15101 Lancaster Road. Parking fee is $10 per vehicle, $9 per vehicle with a senior on board, and $5 per vehicle with DPR Disabled Discount Card.

The poppy reserve’s website indicates that since March 13, patches of poppies have started opening on the eastern side of the park, and this weekend is going to see the real start of the bloom. It could last through mid- to late April if the weather cooperates.

The website also reminds visitors that it can be quite windy, so take a jacket with you. Something else very important to remember: Do not come to visit on a cloudy day. You just read that the poppies are a good weather indicator, so the flowers will be closed on a cloudy day. Around here, we do not have many of those, since the rainy season is over, but keep it in mind. Also, if you want to know the weekly bloom situation, the information is available on the reserve’s website through Mother’s Day, so you can plan your outing. There are eight miles of trails and even a paved section for wheelchairs, so you can really make a day of it.

If you do not take the freeway, you will find the local roads also have many poppies and all kind of wildflowers that you can enjoy for free. The wildflower bloom generally occurs from mid-March through April but varies widely each year. The peak viewing period is usually late March or early April. Poppies are a wonderful sight each spring, and the hills around us get those patches of gold so unique to California.

Welcome to spring and our state flower, the California poppy.


Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center since 1986. She lives in Newhall.


When conditions are right, the hills above Gorman sport a variety of wildflowers that can be seen from Interstate 5.

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  1. Helen Sweany says:

    The poppies also close up for wind. I was out there this morning and there was still a fair amount of people. The closed poppy still makes the hills orange and other plants such as wide swathes of goldfields, owl’s clover, coreopsis, lupine, etc. did not disappoint.

  2. Jackie Stawinski when we going

  3. Hardin Rich says:

    Well written and very interesting, thanks!

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