Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Glory of California Poppies

When I first moved to Seattle, it wasn't the towering fir trees that won my heart. It wasn't the native rhododendrons, the rusty-barked madrones, or the noble cedars, either. It was the California poppies blazing in spring gardens and along the roads.

California poppies are native wildflowers that range from southwestern Washington to southern California. They thrive in dry, dusty, parched, neglected soil, but they're pleased as punch to find themselves in a well-watered garden and flourish there, too, so they've made themselves at home in the Puget Sound area.

Unlike many native Californians who've relocated to Pugetopolis, the poppies aren't at all daunted by gray skies, drizzle, rain, or July days that fail to rise above 65 degrees. Though they do fold up their petals if it's too dim and dank and wait patiently for some warming rays (unlike Californians I saw in the early 90s who folded their belongings into U-Hauls in late winter and pointed them south on the Pacific Coast highway).

California made the poppy its official state flower in 1903, but Native Americans were familiar with it long before California was California. They had many uses for it (and please note I am merely quoting authorities and am not advising that you do so yourself); apparently different parts were used either internally or externally to cure toothache, kill lice, heal sores, suppress headaches, and treat gastrointestinal ailments.

Today the plant is described by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center as poisonous if ingested, particularly if the ingest-er is a child. So be forewarned.

Bees and other pollinators, however, imbibe happily in the poppies' nectar. It's fun to watch a big fat bumblebee rollicking in an open flower--the whole bee-and-blossom combo tips and twirls as if the bee is enjoying a spin in a teacup ride at a fair.

Judging by the vivid color of this insect's pollen-packing abdomen, bees must also collect the flowers' golden dust. Some Native Americans were known to use the poppy's pollen for cosmetic purposes.

I'm not surprised that even the pollen of this poppy is lovely. I'm sweet on every part of this flower's growth. Each stem, for example, first wears a little green conical hat that protects the orange petals before they unfold. It slowly splits and falls off as the blossom opens.

When pollination is complete, the flower petals drift off and dapple the ground to form a tissue-thin film of sunshine. Then the plant grows another slim green party hat, this one packed with seeds. It even retains a frilly little pink ruffle at the base of the hat.

The flowers keep blooming from "midsummer to Michaelmas [Sept. 29]," according to an old field guide, The Observer's Book of Garden Flowers, published by Beatrix Potter's friends Frederick Warne & Co., Ltd., in 1957. Actually, they're in bloom here long before midsummer, thankfully, providing a hit of virtual sunlight when actual rays are often in short supply in Seattle. (In California, April 6 is officially California Poppy Day, and the little "flame flowers" are already ablaze in some of its valleys.)

New blossoms open even as these stems put all their energy into the growth of those skinny hats, which eventually stretch the length of an adult's pointer finger before turning brown and drying out.

At that point, the sides split along seams, and the cargo of seeds spills out.

California poppies today have no particular "use" to humans other than beautification of landscapes; they're widely sold as ornamentals, and are inclined to be invasive in some places.

Range maps show that many southeastern and eastern states are now home to the plants, which perhaps will bring ease to the departed soul of author Neltje Blanchan, who laments in her 1900 work Nature's Garden, "Alas! that the glorious California Poppy, so commonly grown in Eastern gardens...should confine itself to a limited range on the Pacific Coast."

*Yawn* Feeling sleepy after all this poppycock? You might well be ready for a nap. Poppies, as anyone who's seen The Wizard of Oz knows, are known for having a soporific effect. Ethnologists who interviewed California's Native Americans in years past about their uses for plants were told that the flowers of this poppy were laid beneath the beds of children to help them drift off to sleep.