The phones ring again and again. Everyone wants to know whether this year's crop will bloom or bust. But volunteers and workers at the California Poppy Reserve in the Antelope Valley can offer little help.
"You can't predict poppies," said Milt Stark, 79, a longtime Antelope Valley resident, author of several wildflower books and a poppy lover for nearly three-quarters of a century. "They have a mind of their own."
Every spring, hundreds of thousands of flower fans flock to the 1,745-acre reserve hoping to see fiery orange poppies blanket the Antelope Buttes, 15 miles west of Lancaster.
Everyone still talks about the plethora of poppies in 1991, 1995 and 1998, when silky petals of burnt orange, gold and ice white mingled with yucca, sweeping across miles of hills set amid the backdrop of the snow-capped Tehachapi Mountains and stunning more than half a million admirers from around the world.
For the past two years, the fickle flowers have played hard to get, teasing with occasional patches of poppies but mostly hiding in the sandy soil with a stubbornness that left visitors wanting more.
Blooming depends on the weather and the whims of the poppy, state rangers say, and can begin in March and last until May.
Although orange flowers have been spotted along desert roadways, a pittance of poppies has sprouted in the state reserve. Rangers hope more flowers will debut for next weekend's poppy festival. The bloom is expected to peak in mid- to late April.
"But there are no guarantees with the poppy," cautioned Tom Tanner, a supervising state ranger for the Department of Parks and Recreation who oversees six parks in the Mojave Desert. "A few years ago, I would have made a prediction. Now I know better."
Since 1903, the diva poppy, also known as the gold or golden poppy, has reigned as the state flower. Its range stretches along the coastline and reaches inland.
"The Golden Poppy has always symbolized California's good life," according to a plaque on display at the poppy reserve's visitors center. "Its colors mirror California's climate and charm, and the profusion of its blooms reflects the richness of the Golden State."
Its formal name is Eschscholzia californica in honor of J.F. Eschscholtz, a naturalist and member of a Russian scientific expedition that visited San Francisco Bay in the early 1800s.
Early Spanish settlers nicknamed the poppy dormidera, which means the drowsy one, because poppies fold in their petals, as if sleeping, when night falls or a cloud hovers or the wind blows too hard.
Indeed, poppies prefer warm--but not too hot--temperatures, sunbathing with their petals open. The wildflower has four, six or eight petals, with blossoms 2 to 3 inches across.
That such a beautiful bloom flourishes in the western Antelope Valley, a dusty, gusty terrain littered with tumbleweeds, attests to the poppy's mysterious nature.
"They decide when and where to bloom," said Stark, president of the Poppy Reserve Mojave Desert Interpretive Assn. "I can't say why exactly, but they've decided they like it here."
During the late 1960s, state officials conducted a five-year study to find the most consistent poppy-bearing land in the region. It concluded that the western Antelope Valley had the best poppy fields because of steady annual rainfall (up to 27 inches a year), an elevation of approximately 3,000 feet and undeveloped land.
In 1976, officials dedicated the reserve, known as poppy park, off Lancaster Road near 150th Street West.
In 1982, the reserve opened the Interpretive Center--a visitors center that offers videos, books and brochures on the poppy as well as souvenirs such as poppy earrings, aprons, mugs, T-shirts and wildflower cookbooks--in honor of the late Jane S. Pinheiro. She was known as "The Great Poppy Lady" for helping to preserve poppies and painting botanically accurate wildflower watercolors.
Indigenous to California and parts of Arizona, Nevada and Oregon, poppies once covered fields in Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre--where the largest and most brilliant stands grew--and extended to the ocean, said Stark, who has researched the history of poppies.
The bright orange and yellow hues were so intense that it hurt the eyes of early Spanish explorers, who called Southern California La Tierra del Fuego, or the Land of Fire, he said.
California's poppy is a distant cousin of the opium poppy, the sap of which is used to make opium, morphine and heroin. Native Americans used the slightly narcotic California poppy--or Fire Flower--for toothache and headache remedies, cosmetics and religious offerings to dispel frost and famine, according to Stark.
Toothache sufferers today are advised to take aspirin instead; it's against the law to pick the state flower.