Sunday, October 29, 2006

California Poppies

What’s blooming in the area: New rose buds amid dying flowers; stands of native and Maximilian sunflowers in town. In village, one person built a vertical board fence along a side lane, another erected a corrugated steel fence to separate the house from its vineyard.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Chrysanthemums, yellow Mexican hat; chocolate flower near house, one blanket flower, couple Black-eyed Susan buds still opening after flowers all killed.

Looking east: Sweet alyssum; California poppy on wooden retaining wall; pink bachelor button and larkspur next to same wall; flowers under leaves on hollyhock stalk that fell, grew close to ground and wall timbers.
Looking south: Nothing.

Looking west: One white phlox (David); faded Frikarti aster.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum; single flowers top yellow snapdragon spikes; petunias survive in grass next to retaining wall; one French marigold blooms under leaves near mums.

Animal sightings: Chartreuse-bellied birds on Maximilian sunflowers; small insects in California poppies; small geckoes, rabbit; gopher still tunneling.

Weather: Cold temperatures Monday killed all but hardiest or most protected flowers; most days since, frost formed on my windshield at dawn, stayed cool and sometimes slight winds developed.

Weekly update: California poppies were the last thing I expected to see last weekend when I surveyed the devastation wrought by one particularly cold morning.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the largest stand of Eschscholzia Californica grows in Antelope Valley on the edge of the Mojave where the mean temperature in nearby Lancaster during the peak blooming period this year, mid-March to mid-April, was 48°. The mean temperature for Pojoaque last Sunday was 45°. The minimum in California was 35°, while it was 33° a bit south of me; the highs were 61° and 57°, respectively.

But, I never paid much attention. I knew it was native to the Pacific coast from the Columbia to Baja, but just assumed that made it a warm weather, Mediterranean plant. In fact, it’s perennial in Lancaster’s zone 8, but its bloom and seed cycles make it an annual most places. It doesn’t like heat, and dies when temperatures rise. Mine started to brown this year the end of June, two weeks after the first flowers but a month before the full flush of color came with the cooling monsoons.

I bought it because it grew, or at least had grown well in Michigan in the 1980s when I discovered it in seed catalogs. I assumed then it was relatively new to the trade, a corollary to the wildflower movement initiated by Lady Bird Johnson in 1965.

I was wrong. It was popular in the east in the nineteenth century, and probably fell victim to the taste makers of my mother’s generation. William Robinson decreed it "should not be used to any great extent in the select flower garden."

Because it’s golden and from California, many associate it with the gold rush of 1849, but it was already known in 1851 when Breck described the best ways to truss the 2' flexible stems. With publishing schedules, it seems unlikely Breck tested offerings from early returnees in early 1850 and described them a year later.

More likely, he had seeds from a European friend who called it Chriseis Californica, and referred to Eschscholzia as a former, implicitly mistaken, genus. Adelbert von Chamisso officially named it in 1820 for Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, a colleague on a Russian scientific expedition that briefly visited San Francisco Bay in 1816.

Once, México took over California in 1821, the seeds could have moved to Europe on any ship. The fact that it has the four petals and two fused sepals typical of the poppy family may have piqued interest among those looking for another opium source. It wasn’t, but scientists still want to know exactly what narcotic substances it does contain.

In 1901, San Francisco based homeopathist William Boericke announced it "acted more powerfully than morphine" in animals and recommended it as a "harmless soporific." Even today, websites tout its tincture to alleviate anxiety and insomnia.

Lady Bird Johnson is more likely the reason I can have California poppies than Timothy Leary or holistic practitioners. No doubt my seeds’ ancestors were collected from some wild source, but the dynamics of commercial agriculture may have altered them through natural selection. The flowers are known to develop subspecies characteristics in new environments that disappear when the plants are returned to their home range.

It doesn’t matter to me if I have genuine natives or cultivated offspring. They’re blooming at something under 6000', not the 2346' of Lancaster. When the Maximilian sunflowers collapsed on them, the stems sought light on the retaining wall. The usual dark green beds with blobs of color I saw from above were transformed, at waist height, into discrete individuals.

The flowers remained elusive: they opened after I left for work and closed around the stamens before I returned. Even in midsummer, I had to wait for weekends to see them open. Now, I look out the window at daybreak to see if the closed flowers are still erect, if new buds have defied nature’s chill one more night.

Boericke, William. Materia Medica, 1901.

Breck, Joseph. The Flower-Garden,1851, reprinted by OPUS Publications,1988.

Robinson, William. The English Flower Garden, 15th edition of 1933 reprinted by Sagapress, 1984.

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