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California poppy, golden poppy, copa de oro

Scientific name:Eschscholzia californica

Eschscholzia californica is native to the west coast of North America. Populations span the from southwest Washington State to Baja California and the cape region.  Near the southern point of its range populations span inland as far as western Texas. This species usually grows at lower, warmer elevations (below 2,000 ft); the lowland Mojave and Sonoran deserts sever populations in California from those in other states and Baja California (Hickman, 1993; Clark, 2006).  Botanists recognize two subspecies (natural variants) corresponding with this geographic split.  Although natural population are said to occur in Australia, Chile, and South Africa, these are hypothesized to be the result of the dumping of sand bags (ballasts) used to balance ships coming from America beginning in the 1500s (Bailey et al., 2002; Mahr, 2004). Alternatively, they may be escapes from cultivation (Clark, 2006).

California poppy has bluish-green parsley-shaped leaves, which mostly sprout basally, from the base of the plant. Early lineages of flowering plants lack distinct petals and sepals; poppies are representative of an early lineage with clear distinction between the two. The base of the flower, the receptacle, has a distinctive expanded rim (See photos). Above the receptacle, two green fused sepals enclose the young floral bud, falling off when the flower opens (See photo).  There are four satiny orange to yellow petals that form a cup-shaped flower. In the very center, numerous stamens (male reproductive organs) surrounded by two fused carpels (female reproductive organs).

California poppy is pollinated by beetles; but introduced European honey bees also now play an important role (Mahr, 2004). If pollinated, the resulting fruit is a long, slender pod that dries and splits, shooting tiny round black seeds in all directions. This species is said to be a “drought escaper” because it lies dormant as seed for what might be years in some areas.  When a good rain comes, seeds rapidly take root flower, suddenly washing the land in gold (See photo).  Individual populations have adapted to their particular local conditions. In the native range, where it is dry or there are cold hard winters, this species is an annual (living only one year and then reseeding). Outside of these areas, plants develop a tap root, for energy storage, and live beyond a year. Along the coast many populations are short and grow in tight mounds, while populations of the inland valleys are taller and scattered.  In both subspecies, there are occasional white, cream, pink, or red flowers.  Horticulturalist have take advantage of this natural variation and bread many cultivars.  It is still possible to identify cultivated plants from the native populations based on seed dormancy, which is generally absent in cultivated plants (Clark, 2000).

Desert Indian tribes  are reported to have eaten the vegetative leaves, applied the pollen as a cosmetic, used a decoction to kill lice, and used it medicinally as a mild pain killer to treat toothache and insomnia (Mahr, 2004; McNamee, 1996).  Pharmacological activities of Eschscholtzia californica are currently being investigated (Kane, 2005).

Author: Heather Fara, University of Florida. Edited by Dr. J. Curtis Clark, California State Polytechnic University Pomona
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native range

Map: Red area indicates the native range of Eschscholzia californica. Escaped/planted populations of horticultural varieties span many portions of North America; these are not included. Map created by Heather Fara, University of Florida.

budflowerpodlandscaped hills

Photos: (a) Immature flower enclosed in fused sepals detail by Robert Potts California Academy of Sciences. (b) Flower by Will Chatfield-Taylor, Cornell University. (c) Fruit by Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin-Madison. (d) Poppy covered hills by Marguerite Gregory, California Academy of Sciences.


Bailey et al. (2002) California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). California State University, Chico. March 2, 2006.

Clark (2000) The genus Eschscholzia: california poppies and their relatives. California State Polytechnic University Pomona. Jan 2, 2006

Clark (2006) FGP public information page: poppy. csupomona. May 24, 2006.

Hickman (1993) The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kane (2005) Eschscholzia. Tucson Clinic of Biomedical Medicine, 7(1) Dec 12, 2005.

Mahr (2004) Wisconsin master gardener: hort info pages. University of Wisconsin, Madison. Dec 12, 2005

McNamee (1996) Favorite Desert Wildflowers. Desertusa.com. May 12, 2006.

Wikipedia (2006)California poppy. Feb 13, 2006.


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