Magazine article Sunset

Matilija Poppy

Magazine article Sunset

Matilija Poppy

Article excerpt

Matilija poppy

At least 12 groups of people in the Westare, or could become, very fond of the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri and its relatives). Alphabetically, they are:

California native plant lovers

Flower arrangers


Lazy gardeners (big show for no effort)

Perennial border keepers


Picture painters

Plant propagators who like a challenge

Poster designers and collectors

Sunday drivers

Taxonomists (botanists who decide onplant names)

Water-frugal gardeners

What follows is a look at the Matilijafrom all of those perspectives, starting with it as a plant now blooming in gardens and in the wild--and looking forward to next fall and winter, the season for the mechanics: planting, propagating, and cutting back.

As a garden plant

The photographs at left show Matilijapoppy thriving in two Pacific Coast gardens some 1,190 miles apart. It's widely known for enjoying life in all of the West's mild-winter, low-elevation climates. Much less known is the fact that it grows and performs in the deserts and at high elevations. In short: grow it anywhere.

An Irish surgeon-botanist, ThomasCoulter, discovered the plant in California in 1831 or 1832. First seeds reached England in 1875, and, by late Victorian times, the plant had become a prized garden performer. The British never did perceive it as a tough hombre from California's dry arroyos. They grow it with ferns, hydrangeas, and other aristocrats.

Here in the West, one of Matilija's gardenroles is as a watered, tended, large-scale flower bed plant. Its other Western role is as a big, expansive drought-resistant plant. It can do this at the far edge of a maintained garden-of-decorum or at center stage in a laid-back, low-maintenance place.

In the maintained garden, you must be onguard against the plant's spreading rhizomes. In winter and spring, watch for new shoots popping up at a distance from the original plant. Dig up such offsets and as much as possible of the rhizomes that connect them to the mother plant; it's easier than digging up rooted runners of a traveling bamboo or wild blackberry. Dug-up rhizomes can themselves produce new plants--in fact, it's the most efficient way to propagate (see page 202).

Flower production is the same whateverthe setting: the new flowers open only at dawn, last about a week on the plant, and then neatly drop all their petals. They do this from May into July, when the unwatered ones start to slacken off, then quit for the year. Plants that get water (it can be very little) continue to bloom, though lightly, through late summer and then come back for a second bloom season in September and October.

On any one day during the May-Junebloom, a big plant might display 30 to 60 of the usually six-petaled, 8- to 10-inch-wide flowers.

The flowers do quite well cut; they'll lastthree to five days in water. They'll last longer if you burn the ends of the stems: stick them into a gas flame, candle, or match for five seconds.

Cut or on the plant, the flowers have somefragrance. Last June, we had many people smell them. Two-thirds found them pleasant ("delicate, sweet, summery'), a few were neutral, and a few more found the scent unpleasant ("too earthy'). The flowers smell best the day they open.

On our cover, you see a bee taking pollenfrom one of the flowers. Deer also like the blooms. They like to eat the white petals, they take or leave alone the yellow stamens, and they don't touch the leaves. …

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