Window On Nature
By Lowell and Kaye Christie, F47246
Flower lovers will strike it rich the first time they see a hillside or valley covered with this radiant wildflower.
One of the many advantages of a traveling lifestyle is being able to visit the most attractive places at just the right time of year. But making choices in the spring can be a problem, because there are almost too many possibilities, each compelling in its own way. This year we’re concentrating on Western wildflowers.
We’re fascinated by flowers of every description, from the hard-to-photograph “belly-flowers,” where you have to lie down to get a close-up view, to the showy blooms in high mountain meadows that appear after the snow melts. But one of the most impressive displays is created by flower carpets that cover entire hills and valleys in the Western states. Our favorite example is Eschscholzia californica, better known as the California poppy.
Named the California state flower in 1903, this poppy was often called “cup of gold” by the Spanish settlers, and early legend told of petals falling to the ground to produce the precious metal sought by the 49ers during the California gold rush. Whether you believe the legend or not, once you’ve seen these masses of “California Gold,” you’ll understand why travelers return year after year to view the spectacle.
The California poppy is not limited to a single state. Its original range probably covered only eight of the Western states, from Washington south to Baja, California, Mexico, and extending east into parts of Texas. But with the help of humans, this poppy now shows up on United States Department of Agriculture range maps from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans, appearing in 29 states and in most of the Canadian provinces.
One reason is that the California poppy is frequently used along roadsides for highway beautification projects. Another is its popularity in gardens. If you buy a commercial package of mixed wildflower seeds, there is a good chance it will include the California poppy. But just because you plant the seed in your garden doesn’t mean it’s not going to become an escapee.
In areas with a Mediterranean climate the plant is a perennial (lasting for multiple seasons), but it survives as an annual in less hospitable habitats. It’s been introduced into many other countries, and in some places is even considered an invasive species. The poppy’s 3-inch slender seedpod explodes when it ripens, sending the tiny black seeds in all directions. That’s how extensive fields of the California poppy develop.
One year we were visiting Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona. Looking down from the 6,880-foot elevation we could see wide patches of reddish-orange color in the distance. Even with powerful binoculars we could only guess what the source was, but we could see a road leading into the area. Several hours and a few wrong turns later, we were walking through extensive fields of poppies, a desert landscape turned into a riot of color.
The California poppy grows 12 to 18 inches tall, has blue-green fernlike leaves, and sports a four-petaled flower that can range in color from fiery red-orange to a delicate shade of yellow. The petals form a 1-inch to 3-inch cup at the end of a long stem, but it only opens on sunny days. In late afternoons, or during cloudy weather, the blossoms remain closed.
The petals themselves feel satiny to the touch, and when they open, the plants are visible from a great distance. Most grazing animals dislike the bitter taste of the poppy plant, so they tend to eat competing foliage instead. That leaves more room for the poppy, allowing it to spread thickly over hillsides, producing the blanket of blooms that can be seen from miles away.
Of course, the thickness of the carpet that develops in a particular year depends on both the spring weather and the amount of rainfall that occurred some months earlier. For the best displays, the poppies need a good soaking during October and November combined with a very cold period sometime during the winter. The minimum amount of rainfall also needs to be above 10 inches.
An excellent location to see California poppies in all their glory is at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, approximately 15 miles west of Lancaster, California. The reserve covers 1,745 acres, and during the best seasons it seems to be covered in blooms. Winding through the area are 7 miles of walking trails, including a paved section for wheelchair access.
Try to be there between 10:00 a.m. and noon, since the California poppy is a late sleeper and doesn’t fully open until the temperature is above 65 degrees. And in these desert areas, strong winds often develop in the afternoons, making viewing less enjoyable.
Although the poppies may bloom anytime from mid-February to mid-May, you might take a hint from the fact that April 6 each year is designated as “California Poppy Day.” Fortunately, you don’t have to guess. The people in this high-desert area keep close track of the poppy’s abundance each year, and have a phone number for wildflower information that is active during the spring: (661) 724-1180.
Trying to catch the peak of a carpet bloom of wildflowers can be difficult, and each year is different. If you want to view some excellent pictures of how extensive these fields of flowers can be, professional photographer Richard Dickey has been capturing pictures of California poppies and other wildflowers that blanket the high deserts of the West for more 20 years. He shares an extensive collection of his photographs on his Web site at www.feralflowers.com.