Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Cultivated Plants by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Cultivated Plants by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The California Poppy

Teacher's Story

dropcap image LTHOUGH this brilliant flower blossoms cheerfully for us in our Eastern gardens, we can never understand its beauty until we see it glowing in masses on the California foot-hills. We can easily understand why it was selected as the flower of that great State, since it burnished with gold the hills, above the gold buried below; and in that land that prides itself upon its sunshine, these poppies seem to shine up as the sun shines down. The literature of California, and it has a noble literature of its own, is rich in tributes to this favored flower. There is a peculiar beauty in the contrast between the shining flower and its pale blue-green, delicate masses of foliage. Although it is called a poppy and belongs to the poppy family, yet it is not a true poppy, but belongs to a genus named after a German who visited California early in the nineteenth century, accompanying a Russian scientific expedition; this German's name was Eschscholtz, and he, like all visitors, fell in love with this brilliant flower, and in his honor it was named Eschscholtzia (es-sholts-ia) californica. This is not nearly so pretty, nor so descriptive, as the name given to this poppy by the Spanish settlers on the Pacific Coast, for they called it Copa-de-oro,  cups of gold.

The bud of the Eschscholtzia is a pretty thing; it stands erect on the slender, rather long stem, which flares near the bud to an urnlike pedestal with a slightly ruffled rim, on which the bud is set. This rim is often pink above, and remains as a pretty base for the seed-pod. But in some garden varieties, the rim is lacking. The bud itself is covered with a peaked cap, like a Brownie's toboggan cap stuffed full to the tip. It is the shape of an old-fashioned candle extinguisher; it is pale green, somewhat ribbed, and has a rosy tip; it consists of two sepals, which have been sewed together by Mother Nature so skillfully that we cannot see the seams. One of the most interesting performances to watch that I know, is the way this poppy takes off its cap before it bows to the world. Like magic the cap loosens around the base; it is then pushed off by the swelling expanding petals until completely loosened, and finally it drops.


California poppy.

Drawn by Anna C. Stryke.

The petals are folded under the cap in an interesting manner. The outer petal enfolds all the others as closely as it can, and its mate within it enfolds the other two, and the inner two enfold the stamens with their precious gold dust. When only partially opened, the petals cling protectingly about the many long stamens; but when completely opened, the four petals flare wide, making a flower with a golden rim and orange center, although among our cultivated varieties they range from orange to an anaemic white. To one who loves them in their glorious native hues, the white varieties seem almost repulsive. Compare one of these small, pale flowers with the great, rich, orange ones that glorify some favored regions in the Mojave Desert, and we feel the enervating and decadent influence of civilization.

The anthers are many and long, and are likely to have a black dot on the short filament; at first, the anthers stand in a close cluster at the center of the flower, but later they flare out in a many pointed star. Often, when the flowers first open, especially the earlier ones, the stigmas cannot be seen at all; but after a time the three, or even six stigmas, spread wide athwart the flower and above the stamen-star, where they may receive pollen from the visiting insects. The anthers give abundance of pollen, but there is said to be no nectary present. This flower is a good guardian of its pollen, for it closes during the nights and also on dark and rainy days, only exposing its riches when the sunshine insures insect visitors. It closes its petals in the same order in which they were opened in our Eastern gardens, although there are statements that in California, each petal folds singly around its own quota of anthers. The insects in California take advantage of the closing petals and often get a night's lodging within them, where they are cozily housed with plenty of pollen for supper and breakfast; and they pay their bill in a strange way by carrying off as much of the golden meal as adheres to them, just as the man who weighs gold-dust gets his pay from what adheres to the pan of his scales.

After the petals fall, the little pod is very small, but its growth is as astonishing as that of Jack's beanstalk; it finally attains a slim length of three inches, and often more. It is grooved, the groove running straight from its rimmed base to its rosy tip; but later a strange twisting takes place. If we open one of these capsules lengthwise, we must admire the orderly way in which the little green seeds are fastened by delicate white threads, in two crowded rows, the whole length of the pod.

The leaf is delicately cut and makes the foliage a fine mass, but each leaf is quite regular in its form. It has a long, flattened petiole, which broadens and clasps the stem somewhat at its base. Its blade has five main divisions, each of which is deeply cut into fingerlike lobes. The color of this foliage and its form show adaptations to desert conditions.

This plant has a long, smooth tap root, especially adapted for storing food and moisture needed during the long, dry California summers; for it is perennial in its native state, although in the wintry East, we plant it as an annual.

Lesson CLVI

The California Poppy

Leading thought—The California poppy is a native of California. It blossoms during the months of February, March and April in greatest abundance. It is found in the desert as well as among the foothills.

Method—If possible, the students should study this in the garden. In the East, it flowers until frost comes, and affords a delightful subject for a September lesson. In California it should be studied in the spring, when the hills are covered with them. But the plant may be brought into the schoolroom, root and all, and placed in a jar, under which conditions it will continue to blossom.


1. Look at the California poppy as a whole and tell, if you can, why it is so beautiful when in blossom.

2. Look at the flower bud. What sort of a stem has it? What is the shape of the stem just below the bud? What is the color of the little rim on which the bud rests? What peculiarity has this bud? Describe the little cap.

3. Watch a flower unfold. What happens to the "toboggan cap?" How does the bud look after the cap is gone? What is its appearance when the petals first open? When they are completely open?

4. Describe the anthers. How do they stand when the flower first opens? How later? Can you see the stigmas at first? Describe them as they look later.

5. Does the poppy remain open at night? Does it remain open during cloudy or rainy weather? Why?

6. Do the petals have the same position that they did in the bud? As the flower matures, note how each petal curls. Do they all fall at once? Are there any anthers left after the petals fall?

7. How does the little pod look when the petals first fall? What happens to it later? Note the little rim at its base. Cut the seed-pod open lengthwise, examine the seeds with a lens, and describe how they are fastened to the sides of the pod. Are the ribs straight from end to end in the pod at first? Do they remain in this position? How does the pod open and scatter its seeds?

8. Study the leaf of this California poppy. Describe how it joins the stem. Sketch a leaf showing its chief divisions into leaflets and how each leaflet is divided. Note that the juice of the stem has the peculiar odor of muriatic acid.

9. Look at the root. Do you think it is fitted to sustain the plant through a long, dry summer? What kind of summers do they have in California? Where does the poppy grow wild?

10. Read all the accounts you can find of the California poppy, and write a little theme describing why it was chosen as the flower of that great State, and how it came by its name.

In a low brown meadow on a day

Down by the autumn sea,

I saw a flash of sudden light

In a sweep of lonely gray;

As if a star in a clouded night

One moment had looked on me

And then withdrawn; as if the spring

Had sent an oriole back to sing

A silent song in color, where

Other silence was too hard to bear.

I found it and left it in its place,

The sun-born flower in cloth of gold

That April owns, but cannot hold

From spending its glory and its grace

On months that always love it less,

But take its splendid alms in their distress.

Back I went through the gray and the brown,

Through the weed-woven trail to the distant town;

The flower went with me, fairly wrought

Into the finest fiber of my thought.

—A California Poppy in November,

Irene Hardy.

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