The California poppy is a study in contrasts. The plants are vigorous, and often grow in vacant lots and roadsides with no tending. However, upon picking, you will discover that their beauty is fleeting, as the petals fall to the ground before you can even get the plants to a vase. A fast growing annual or tender perennial, California poppies are at their peak in the spring, but may bloom for gardeners in areas with cool summers over longer periods. The cheerful flowers seem to spring up overnight, blanketing large areas with bright orange, pink, or gold silky petals. Grow California poppies in abundance to fill gaps in your spring flowerbeds, untended wildflower meadows, or containers.
- Common Name: California poppy; Cup of gold
- Botanical Name: Eschscholzia californica
- Plant Type: Tender perennial
- Mature Size: 12 inches
- Sun Exposure: Full sun
- Soil Type: Average to poor
- Soil pH: 6.6 to 7.5
- Bloom Time: Spring
- Flower Color: Orange, yellow, pink, white
- Hardiness Zones: USDA growing zones 8-10 as a perennial; annual everywhere
- Native Area: Western United States
Caring for California Poppies
Like most native wildflowers, California poppies are easy to care for and maintain. The key is providing them with growing conditions that mimic their native habitat. For this plant, it's more about what you don't give California poppies than what you do give them. Less is more: less water, less soil nutrition, and less warmth. Don't coddle your California poppies, and you'll have the pleasure of watching them self-sow and pop up in the most unexpected places for many growing seasons to come.
California poppies require a day of full sunlight to bloom and maintain plant vigor. Six hours of unfiltered sunlight is essential for poppy growth, and more is even better. California poppies that grow in shady spots will look ratty and succumb to fungal diseases.
The ability of California poppies to grow in areas with poor soil gives them an edge on survival: whereas other plants that need rich loamy soil full of nutrients might flounder in depleted soils, California poppies move in to fill this niche. Sandy soils and rocky soils both provide good conditions for California poppies. What doesn't work is heavy clay soils. California poppies need great drainage for their tap roots, so if your soil is clay, try raised beds or container culture.
California poppies require very little water, and are good candidates for drought tolerant xeriscapes. Sporadic spring rainfall is adequate to irrigate the plants. In areas with hot summers, plants will often go dormant and need no additional irrigation during this time.
Temperature and Humidity
The warming of the soil in the spring, combined with moisture from spring rains, will trigger germination of California poppy seeds. As long as temperatures remain mild, between 50 and 75 degrees F, California poppies will continue to grow. In areas with hot summers, California poppy plants will become dormant. However, when cool fall temperatures return, plants will regrow and re-bloom from their tap roots.
No fertilizer is necessary to successfully grow California poppies, even in areas with poor soil. The addition of chemical fertilizers will cause excess foliage growth at the expense of blooms.
Varieties of California Poppy
'California Golden' delivers that classic bright orange color the early settlers admired hundreds of years ago. 'Mission Bells' is a delicious mix of sherbet hues including pink, salmon, and cream with some semi-double blooms. 'Golden West' is twist on the familiar orange bloom, as it features a darker eye.
Toxicity of California Poppy
All parts of the California poppy are poisonous when consumed by people or pets.
Being Grown in Containers
The trick to growing California poppies in containers is to grow them from seed. With their long tap roots, the plants resent being transplanted. Treat container-grown poppies as a hardy annual, and pull them when they're done blooming, as they are unlikely to last over the winter in a container.
Growing From Seeds
Sow poppy seeds where you intend to grow them outdoors, after the last chance of frost. Press the seeds lightly into the soil, watering gently to avoid dislodging the tiny seeds. Germination occurs in about two weeks. You can distinguish germinating poppy seeds from weeds by observing the bluish-green tint of poppy foliage. Thin seedlings to about eight inches apart.
Common Pests and Diseases
California poppies can suffer from several diseases when growing in an environment that experiences excessive rain. Mold, mildew, and stem rot can occur in plants growing in wet areas. Although you can treat plants with anti-fungal agents, the best treatment is prevention by planting in full sun and sharply draining soil to keep poppies dry.
California Poppy vs. Oriental Poppy
The Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) is a hardy cousin to the California poppy, and will survive the winters of zone 3 gardens. Oriental poppies are larger than California poppies, reaching four feet tall, and come in a range of colors and textures, including fringed and fully double flowers. Oriental poppies are long-lived plants, and will expand their clump size each year in the landscape.