Dear Readers, some of the tree pits along the County Roads in East Finchley have been planted up with seeds, and I’m always fascinated to see what ‘escapes’ and starts to grow in the cracks and crevices of the pavement. Poppies seem to be particularly fond of doing this: there are very pretty lemon-yellow Welsh poppies in several locations, and there was an abundance of opium poppies outside my friend A’s house a year or so ago. These are plants of poor soil and disturbed ground, so a north London street is very little problem for them.
California poppy is one of those plants that grows from seed without any messing about – throw a handful in the soil and off it goes. This one had attracted a marmalade hoverfly (as you can see from the photo), and cheap and cheerful doesn’t even begin to cover its attractions – it seems perfect for a child’s garden to me, when you want something reliable, bright and long-flowering. The commonest varieties are golden or orange, though I have seen some dusky pink ones too.
As you might expect from the name, California poppies come from the Western United States, from Washington in the north all the way down to Baja California in the south. It’s said that the whole 1745 acres of the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is carpeted in orange when the poppies are in flower. What a sight that must be! It’s said that the early Spanish explorers could navigate by the sight of the orange hills, and that they called the plant ‘Cup of Gold’ (copa de oro). Very appropriate.
Like many flowers, California poppies open up when it’s sunny, and stay closed when it’s chilly. The flowers also close at night time, giving it another Spanish name, ‘Dormidera’, meaning ‘to fall asleep’.
There is a subspecies of the poppy that can be found in the Monterey Bay area, and is yellow and much lower growing.
Poppies of all kinds are attractive to insects because of their pollen – both the UK’s field poppy and the California poppy produce abundant amounts of this protein-rich bee food. The flowers are edible by humans (in moderation) and are sometimes used as a garnish, though they aren’t much used for their seeds as other species are. In the UK the plant is largely grown as an annual, but as it self-seeds everywhere I suspect that once you have it it will be with you forever. It is drought-tolerant but doesn’t like heavy clay soils, which is a bit of a pity as that’s exactly what I have. No wonder ‘my’ plant is lurking outside my front door in a crack in the pavement.
The golden poppy (another name for the California poppy but the same species) has been the state flower of California since 1903, and can be seen on many of the road signs.
Medicinally, the plant seems to be associated, like so many poppies, with treatments for various forms of anxiety, from insomnia to bed-wetting. It’s said that it isn’t an opioid like other poppies, and has been used to help those addicted to morphine/heroin to ‘kick the habit‘. Native American peoples thought it gentle enough to be made into a tea to soothe their children. The Plant Lore website reports that
‘My grandfather used to pick and dry California poppies (the whole plant), then grind it all up and roll it into cigarette papers and smoke it. This gave him and his friends a mild euphoric feeling, with no known side effects [Andover, Hampshire, December 2013].’
Was there anything that folk haven’t dried and tried to smoke, I wonder? I remember a friend of mine smoking a cigarette through the shell of a green pepper because he was told that it would make him feel euphoric. I have no idea if it worked, but it certainly ruined my intended stir-fry.
And finally, a poem. I rather liked this by Sandra McPherson, a poet that I hadn’t come across before. I think she captures the strange cruelty of cutting a flower for our own pleasure – the image of the twitching frog’s legs will stay with me for quite a while. See what you think.
Orange is the single-hearted color. I remember How I found them in a vein beside the railroad, A bumble-bee fumbling for a foothold While the poppies' petals flagged beneath his boot. I brought three poppies home and two buds still sheathed. I amputated them above the root. They lived on artlessly Beside the window for a while, blazing orange, bearing me No malice. Each four-fanned surface opened To the light. They were bright as any orange grove. I watched them day and night stretch open and tuck shut With no roots to grip, like laboratory frogs' legs twitching Or like red beheaded hens still hopping on sheer nerves. On the third afternoon one bud tore off its green glove And burst out brazen as Baby New Year. Two other poppies dropped their petals, leaving four Scribbly yellow streamers on a purple-brimmed and green Conical cadaver like a New Year's hat. I'd meant to celebrate with them, but they seemed So suddenly tired, these aging ladies in crocheted Shawl leaves. They'd once been golden as the streets Of heaven, now they were as hollow. They couldn't pull together for a last good-bye. I had outlived them and had only their letters to read, Fallen around the vase, saying they were sorry.
Photo One By User:Vsion – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=209016
Photo Two By Peter D. Tillman – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38654420
Photo Three by CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=397719