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California poppies revel, and show off a bit, in dry years

Edges of this rural drive were disked in the fall and sown with poppy seed, where they flourished in disturbed ground. The time to sow this wildflower is in the fall.
Edges of this rural drive were disked in the fall and sown with poppy seed, where they flourished in disturbed ground. The time to sow this wildflower is in the fall. McClatchy-Tribune

John Steinbeck described the California poppy in “East of Eden” as “not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of poppies.”

Such praise reminds us in these times of drought that this extraordinary poppy offers brilliant spring color without a drop of potable water. Sowing it into our dead lawns and crispy borders, edges and waysides may indeed reclaim the glory of spring without taxing limited supplies.

To truly understand Eschscholzia californica you must respect the climate of its homeland. The region experiences winter rains, then spans May through November without another drop.

Therefore, the time to sow this wildflower is in the fall, which ensures it’s in place before the rains begin. This allows early development of the taproot, which digs deeper and deeper over the cold, wet season. Then when days grow longer and bloom time arrives, they are already well-established. A strong taproot allows each plant to produce more blooms over a longer period in order to set abundant seed.

The most common error is to sow in spring, because this is already way too late for the plant’s drought-busting strategy. It’s also the reason many who sow late find their plants weak and spindly due to a much smaller taproot that runs out of surface moisture prematurely. Properly timed sowing can also help your initial stand to produce abundant seed, which hopefully will lie dormant the following summer waiting for the whole process to repeat with the coming of the first rains.

After 50 years of observation, I’ve noticed one curious truth about California’s state flower in the wild: It often distains fertile ground. Some of the best plants are found in very lean earth that borders on road gravel in its structure. Poppies so love road gravel that they often are the thickest along the edges of rural highways. This is due in part to the porosity of this ground as well as moisture seeping out from under the asphalt.

These wildflowers are known to spring out of rocky cliffs where seed has fallen into fissures however narrow. This is where it’s protected and germinates, the taproots drawing on moisture trapped by the rock as the leaves and flowers rise up to the sun. These plants in turn self-sow back into that same fissure where the progeny waits in hiding for the moisture to come. Such scenarios often lead us to assume this annual is the same perennial plant each year.

So too does the poppy prefer ephemeral dry washes that run with water during rainfall, then quit a day after. These arid places reveal another factor: The poppy abhors competition. All too often, wet years and abundant irrigation foster growth of much more aggressive grasses and other species that make poppies claustrophobic. This is because that taproot, again, needs to obtain all the water it can without other more greedy fibrous roots desiccating the soil at the same time.

Sow your poppies in areas without irrigation, where it’s turned off or where drip irrigation leaves large dry spaces between individual plants. It’s these interim zones where the poppy will flourish, filling the garden with golden cream over the first warm days of spring.

Do not wait to order your poppy seed because early winter rains will come soon. Most wildflower sellers online offer it in quantity. Sow into disturbed ground so even the most scant rainfall is enough to germinate this seed and begin the journey of the taproot. This is key to helping your first stand begin a more sustainable colony.