Featured Creature: California Poppy

Photo by Tania Roa

What creature is a state flower, is celebrated throughout the months of March to May, and is famous in the West Coast for picture-perfect annual blooms?

California poppies!

Photo by Tania Roa

I didn’t know the California poppy was my home state’s flower until I was about 12 years old. A rumor started going around school that picking a California poppy was illegal, and you can be fined up to $2,000 if you dared pluck one. As with most rumors, this was only partially true. According to California state law, it is illegal to harm any plant residing on public land, or private land that is not your own. If someone does pick or hurt plant life residing in these areas, the punishment is a fine of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to six months. How’s that for Flower Power?

Photo by Seedles

Flowers without borders

California poppies, despite what their name implies, are found all along the West coast, from Washington state to Mexico. Other names these plants go by include golden poppy, California sunlight, flame flower, la amapola, and copa de oro (or cup of gold). It was named California’s state flower on March 2nd, 1903. California Poppy Day is every year on April 6th, and Poppy Week is celebrated May 13th – 18th. So while Californians are enjoying the much-anticipated springtime poppy blooms throughout these months, the flowers are getting their proper recognition.

Photo by Frederic J. Brown

A True Californian

Although poppies are often seen as an annual plant due to these beautiful blooming events, they can bloom for a majority of the year if environmental conditions remain stable. Like most of us Californians, these flowers don’t do well in the cold (or in the ‘cool’ for those out-of-staters who experience ‘real cold’). Other than that, poppies can sprout anywhere, despite deteriorating soil conditions, pavements, or the heat. They really do embody Californian traits!

California poppies aren’t a great source of nectar, but they still attract bees and other insects with their plentiful pollen. These flowers need not worry about a lack of visitors, though, because they reproduce on their own. Their long, thin pods hold up to 100 seeds. When seeds are ready to be dispersed, pods will open up and send seeds flying up to six feet away! We Californians tend to think all poppies are orange or yellow, hence those gold-themed names, but poppies come in a variety of colors including lilac, ivory, and red.

Photo from rareseeds.com

The poppy with many purposes 

Native Americans used California poppies for medicinal, cosmetic, and culinary purposes. To this day, herbalists use poppies and advocate for their beneficial uses. 

The root of California poppies can be dried and ingested as a tea. Thanks to its sedative properties, this tea can treat insomnia if consumed before bedtime. By calming the nervous system, this tea can also relieve anxiety or tension and combat inability to focus, leading to overall mental health benefits. Native peoples would extract the root’s juice and directly apply it to toothaches to alleviate pain. 

Leaves of California poppies are used in powder form to obtain the flower’s antimicrobial properties. This powder can treat sores and skin lesions. It prevents wounds from getting infected, therefore speeding up the healing process.

Pollen found in poppies was used by Indigenous peoples as makeup to cover blemishes. The flower was also used to make hair supplements that promoted thicker, shinier hair. 

The seed of California poppies, also called maw seed, can be used as birdseed or for cooking purposes. It can be added as a garnish to flavor baked goods, or it can be ground up and used as flour. The oil extracted from the seed is considered edible and can be used as a substitute for other cooking oils. 

All in all, we can thank Indigenous peoples for demonstrating the versatile and beneficial uses of this Golden State flower. 

From California to the world!

By Tania Roa