Pretty poppies for San Diego

By Nan Sterman  

Copyright © 2017, The San Diego Union-Tribune

The California poppy might be the state flower, but it isn’t the state’s only native poppy, nor the only one that thrives in San Diego’s water-wise gardens.

What makes poppies poppies? Plants that are true poppies all share a set of characteristics. Their flowers have four petals (a few have six), at the base of which are many, many stamens tipped in pollen. The fringe of stamens encircles a prominent pistil, the female part of the flower that develops into the seedpod.

Channel Islands Tree Poppy (Dendromecon harfordii) is a shrub poppy native to the Channel Islands, just off our coastline. These fast-growing shrubs can reach 18 feet tall in the wild, but in gardens they are seldom taller than 8 or10 feet or wider than 6 to 8 feet. Their upright branches feature 4- or 5-inch-long elliptical leaves in a striking glaucus (waxy) blue-green color. The leaf color offsets the lemon yellow flowers, each the size of a pingpong ball. Stamens are golden orange. This poppy blooms on and off from spring through fall with a peak in April and May. These fast growers prefer full sun, especially along the coast, and well-draining soil. They do best at the back of the garden bed. The wood is as soft as balsa, so if the plant starts to look a little unruly, cut the plant severely to as little as 6 inches tall. New branches sprout surprisingly quickly.

In the wild, these plants grow with Santa Cruz Island ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp asplenifolius) Catalina cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp lyonii), redflower buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var rubescens), island snapdragon (Galvezia), and different kinds of California lilac (Ceanothus).

Bush Poppy (Dendromecon rigida) is smaller than the Channel Island tree poppy (3 to 10 feet tall by 2 to 8 feet wide) with narrow, willowlike blue-green leaves that are finer textured. While the flowers look almost identical, they are smaller and bloom only in spring. This shrubby poppy is native to chaparral areas, so it tolerates heat better than its cousin. In San Diego County, bush poppy grows from Torrey Pines Nature Reserve to The Cuyamaca Mountains. Its natural companions include eastwood Manzanita (Arctostaphylos glandulosa ssp glandulosa) and bigberry Manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca).

Along the coast, bush poppies need no irrigation once established, not even in summer. Inland, water deeply in summer, only once every month or two.

Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) is often referred to as the fried egg plant, thanks to its distinctive flower. The open bloom is huge at 6 or 8 inches across, with four crepe-papery white petals surrounding stamens and a pistil that together are the color of an egg yolk and smell like fresh apricots. The upright stems of this perennial are blue green, as are their deeply cut leaves. Huge flower buds form at the top of each stem in early spring and soon open to welcome bees and other pollinators. After flowers fade, the stems start to die back, so by late summer or fall, it is best to cut the stems to about 6 inches.

Matilija poppy plants form a dense underground network of rhizomes that spread and spread and spread, much like running bamboo, so these plants are not for small gardens, nor do they do well in containers. At planting, surround the roots with a root barrier, and stop watering once the plants are established, which typically takes two years. They’ll survive just fine on rainfall.

Matilija poppy is native to San Diego County’s dry washes, coastal sage scrub and chaparral in our canyons and foothills, along with manzanita (Arctostaphylos), scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia), coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) and lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia).

Cream cups (Platystemon californicus) are beautiful little poppies that grow as small mounds, less than a foot tall and half that wide. In early spring, the plants are smothered in flowers, 25 to 50 flower stalks per plant, each topped in a six-petaled creamy white or pale yellow flower. This tough little annual blooms in the cool months of spring, disappearing completely before the heat sets in. In nature, they grow in open, sunny spots with sandy or gravelly soil that drains well. Create those same conditions to be successful growing them in your garden — from seed. Plant in a wildflower meadow with California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) and bulbs such as the Mariposa lily (Calochortus sp) along with wild native grasses

Prickly poppy (Argemone minuta) is a beautiful midsized annual or perennial poppy with large, white flowers that look like smaller versions of Matilija poppies, but with sharp prickles covering their gray stems and leaves. These poppies are desert natives, best planted from seed into a spot that is hot, in full sun, well-draining soil, and not irrigated. If you chose well, they will reseed from season to season.

Best to plant prickly poppies in spaces where they can be seen but don’t often need to be accessed. Working with them requires the same protection as working with roses — long sleeves, long tough gloves, long pants, closed shoes and even protective eyewear. They won’t jump out at you, but they will scratch you up if you are not careful.

A word about planting poppies: Experts tell us that poppies, perennials, annuals and shrubs have brittle roots that are easily shattered, so they can be challenging to transplant. You’ll have more success with small annual and perennial poppies if you start with seed rather than seedling, and always in fall or early winter so seeds can germinate with rainfall.

Planting Matilija poppies and bush poppies is challenging but rewarding. Plant in the cool months of fall and winter and, for Matilija poppies in particular, minimize root disturbance when you plant. Don’t rough up the roots. Don’t remove soil from the root ball. Instead, water the pot thoroughly and allow it to drain. Dig the planting hole. With a sharp knife, cut the bottom out of the nursery container. Use your hand to support the bottom of the root ball so it stays in the pot and gently turn the pot upright, then set it into the hole. Cut the rest of the pot away by slitting it down the sides. Then, gently refill the hole with damp soil. Water to settle the soil when you are done.

If you did it correctly, and chose the best spot for your plant, it should root nicely. If not, try again. These plants are so fabulous that they are worth the work.

Sterman is a water-wise garden designer and author and the host of “A Growing Passion” on KPBS television. More information is at www.plantsoup.com.

Banner photo: A variety of water-wise poppies can thrive in San Diego gardens. (Cristina Byvik)