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Poppy culture

Trumpeting its splendor by spring means sowing seeds now. What you'll get is not only an icon of the Golden State, but an unsung star of horticulture.

October 27, 2005|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

THE first wild poppies appear on the hills around Los Angeles in late December. A smattering follow in January, a surprising number bloom through the drenchings in February, then, boom, the hills and valleys turn into a euphoric gold carpet from March until June. Reflecting this swelling exultance of the wild in city gardens takes little more than a shake of the seed packet.

The trick is shaking it now.

Do it today, tomorrow, this coming month. This way, the poppy seeds have time to germinate and mature slowly through the rainy season. By the coldest dawns of late December or January, seedlings will be well enough established to survive frost, and by spring, the seemingly delicate flowers will have established long, robust tap roots full of food and water, all set for the spring flush.

Whatever you do, don't wait for one of those helpful seasonal prompts from a home improvement chain. It won't happen. Big-box stores sell much the same stock here as they do in Connecticut, so the fall planting specials invariably concentrate on tulips and daffodils. The Eastern bias is so strong that if you find seeds for our state flower at all at OSH, you will be doing well. At Home Depot, there should be native wildflower seeds, but they will be at the back of the store, past the pesticides. Only the ever-improving local chain Armstrong gives the wildflower seeds a strong display, if far from the entrance, again past the Dutch bulbs.

This is bad enough coming at the height of our season for planting wildflowers, but it is positively backward in a place where a poppy is the state flower, nevermind that the California poppy is an unsung star of international horticulture.

Nobody is quite sure when it first caught a European eye. James Curtis Clark, a professor of botany at Cal Poly Pomona, was stunned when he arrived in California from Oklahoma in the mid-1970s all set to work on his doctoral degree and found no major systematic studies of the California poppy. He's since corrected that, and in a comprehensive website that he's posted (teachers, hie thee hither:, he speculates that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who set sail from Navidad, Mexico, in June 1542, must have seen virgin hillsides of Alta California still blushing gold during his trip up the coast.

However, it took Adelbert von Chamisso, who was on a Russian sailing expedition to California and Alaska in 1816, to collect the plant and name it after a German surgeon and entomologist traveling with him, Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz, thus rendering our state flower Eschscholzia californica.

By the 1840s, collectors were busily sending seeds from perhaps a dozen regional species of the California poppy back to Europe, says Clark. For more than a century, English horticulturists particularly have sown field after field of them looking for interesting variations -- spotting a pink one here, a frilly one there.

They then cross-pollinated the curiosities to produce only seeds with the desired mutation: only tufted, only pink, etc. The result: Look at the current catalog of the English seed company Thompson & Morgan, and the California poppies are as unrecognizable as relatives of our wildflower as a poodle is of a wolf. On its home page, the 2006 "top annual" is 'Summer Sorbet,' a California poppy with ruffled pink cup and cream-and-yellow throat. If it is yellow you fancy, there's 'Buttermilk.' Coral? 'Apricot Flambeau.'

There are some American dandies. The Colorado-based company Botanical Interests raises a lipstick-red 'Mikado' variant on the California poppy. For those Sissinghurst types, there is 'White Linen.' The Santa Cruz firm Renee's Garden has the red-and-white mix 'Tequila Sunrise.'

BUT nothing we have touches the versions in the English catalogs, which is perhaps just as well. A few potfuls of the Europeanized natives go a long way. Overdo the planting of Eschscholzia cultivars such as 'Champagne and Roses' or 'Strawberry Fields,' and the plants easily take on a faintly disturbing quality, as curiously wrong as fruit-flavored yogurt or a child with makeup. No, if you want the flowers along your front walk to echo the trumpeting glee of California spring, best to use seeds from the native wildflower.

Or as close as you can get to it. Out in Pomona, Clark warns that commercial California poppy seeds may be sold as wildflowers, but they too are plants that have been altered by breeders. Although American seed companies haven't been as determined as Europeans to change the look of the state flower, they've still meddled profoundly with its habit. They've had to, explains Clark. Wild poppies may have a 5% germination rate with the first rain, allowing a successive germination throughout the season, and even delays lasting years.

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