Eschsholzia californica: King of California native species

photo of poppy seeds
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If you’re interested in showcasing your California roots and are up for a bit of gardening, look no further than our land’s native species. California’s unique climate and geography harbors an array of flamboyant native plants. While typical gardening upkeep can require considerable water, natives are the most sustainable choice for our water-conscious generation. Additionally, natives are most beneficial for local ecosystems and can restore habitats for butterflies, birds and bees.

The California poppy, or Eschscholzia californica, is my father’s favorite inhabitant in our home garden. Surrounded by other natives, such as succulents and my preferred Mexican marigolds, the poppy serves as the garden’s crown jewel. I can attest that a garden almost entirely comprised of native plants is still capable of producing a wow factor. Although more than 100 species exist in the poppy family, our focus will remain on the sherbet orange wildflowers.


Poppies hold importance in mythology, religion, politics and medicine. In 1903, the poppy became California’s official state flower. Known as the flame flower, or cup of gold, poppies grow wild throughout California and parts of Mexico. The Spanish coined it la dormidera or “to fall asleep” as the pedals retract, closing their cups at dusk.

Lifecycle and ideal conditions

Poppies are technically short-living perennials that live for three or more growing seasons. However, most gardeners grow poppies as annual plants. It often takes 55 to 75 days to transition from seed to flower. California’s coastal desert climate caters directly to poppies, which thrive from sea level to 6,500 feet in direct sunlight. Poppies rapidly reproduce as they are self-seeders, allowing them to naturally coat entire hillsides. Preferring sandy and rocky soil, poppies are tolerant of considerable drought.

Planting and germination strategy 

Poppies grow in agricultural hardiness zones from five to 10 and prefer a soil pH of 6.5 through 7.5. Conveniently for Californians, this characterizes the majority of the state. Poppies can adapt to growing both indoors and outdoors with fast-draining soil and plenty of sunshine. Clearing and raking the entire sowing area is also advised for a solid crop. This preemptive step minimizes competition for sunlight and promotes drainage. Sprinkling a mixture of sand and seed will reduce the need to thin plants later on and create healthy spacing. Next, spread a thin layer of soil above and water daily until the sprouts reach four to six inches tall. Then you can water two to three times a week or as needed. Ideally, they will grow six to 12 inches apart and will self-multiply after their first cycle. If you plan to plant different varieties in the following season, be sure to clip the stalks just below the head. This process is called deadheading. It will promote the growth of new flowers and prevent the seedpods from forming.

Underground gardening

Underground gardening, or guerrilla gardening, as I like to call it, is when you spread your seeds on property that is not your own. It is best to work with species native to your chosen seeding grounds as they will be the best self-sustaining option. I inherited this growth-promoting hobby from my father. To ensure growth without maintenance, sprinkling seeds as close as possible to the next rain event is best. Although beautiful, it probably wouldn’t be the best idea to spread seeds in your neighbor’s yard without their consent. Nevertheless, medians in the road, local school fronts, or any untarmacked area without extreme plant cover and habitable soil are excellent locations to sprinkle your seed.

Alternative uses

Poppy petals can be used as a garnish, and seeds complement many baked goods. Cold-pressing seeds creates poppy oil — a common cooking ingredient. The extracted oils can also serve as a makeshift skin moisturizer. Poppies are commonly used in varnishes, paints or even as an additive in soaps. The options are truly limitless!

If you’re in the market to spice up your living space but don’t have the time to pick up a somewhat time-consuming hobby such as gardening, a beginner’s guide to low maintenance plants is a great source *for* resilient and high-performing greenery that will thrive in your home.

Contact Alexander Brown at [email protected].