The much-loved Californian poppy is easy to grow and sure to make you smile.
If only Linnaeus (who came up with our system of plant naming and named many plants) had made some English friends instead of German and Russian ones: then we would not have to struggle with the mass of consonants that Johann Friedrich von Eshscholtz has lent to this wonderful annual. Even worse, the botanical name does not have a ‘t’ like the lovely Johann while the unrelated genus (In Lamiaceae) esholtzia does. So it is no wonder that we like to call it by its sunny name of Californian poppy. And, thankfully, it is, like its relatives, a Californian native.
This is a lovely plant, even in its wild form. Like many poppy relatives it has rather brittle, glassy stems and leaves but in this they are finely divided and feathery, in a pretty blue-green colour. The plants are low and bushy and send up vertical stems with bright, four-petalled flowers. The flower buds are like narrow cones and as the buds open the petals push off the united sepals as a pointed cap. They are followed by long, narrow seed pods. Although flowering is prolonged by deadheading it is not essential from an aesthetic point of view because old flowers drop their petals and the seed pods are not too obtrusive. The natural colour is in shades of orange though other species are yellow.
Robinson seeems enthusiastic; ‘Brilliant annual flowers, of easy culture in ordinary soil. To have them in all their beauty, they should be sown in August and September for early summer bloom.’ But he ends with the rather dismissive ‘They are plants that should not be used to any great extent in the select flower garden.’ which is hardly a ringing endorsement.
I don’t know what he had against them but I like to see then in swathes and they are fine for attracting bees. Perhaps because I like my annuals bright and breezy I think they look great with blue annuals such as nigella and phacelia.
But Robinson is right about sowing time. Though they are easily grown from seed in spring and will perform very well, they are always best when sown in autumn, when the plants have plenty of time to form good root systems and then develop good plants before starting to flower.
If the wild orange is a bit too brash for you then you will be relieved to know that plant breeders have done a lot of work to tone down the colour scheme which now includes delightful pastels (though not true white) and doubles, many of which have pretty, crimped petals. There is something for everyone and mixtures are available in subtle shades or in bright colours. They are generally easy to grow but well drained soil is preferred and a sunny spot. With the right cultivation regime they will self seed and will hang around for many years. Like many plants, the more unusual colours are produced by weaker plants, meaning that, over the years, you will end up with mostly orange flowers. This is always an important consideration when sowing mixes of colours – when you come to thin your seedlings after sowing direct, do NOT be tempted to pull out the weak, small plants and leave only the strong ones. That way you will not get the full mix of colours. This applies to all mixed flower seeds. I have mentioned it before but it is worth repeating as I know that no one, apart from me, has read all my posts!
For happy, sunny colour in summer, few plants can beat Californian poppies.