As most gardeners know, the California Poppy is the official state flower of California.
But, if there were a silver medalist in this category, the runner-up for this honor would likely be the Matilija Poppy (Romneya).
Matilija (say “ma-TILL-a-ha) Poppies grow native in only a few select locations from Ventura to San Diego, including Orange County, so perhaps this plant might be better known as The “Southern” California State Flower”.
Many gardeners will recognize the Matilija Poppy’s striking flowers, especially at this time of the year. They are hard to miss, often eight to ten inches across, the largest flower of any of California’s over 4,000 native plant species.
About this time of year tall stems rise upward from a mass of beautiful steely blue-grey foliage. Atop each stem, often as high as six or eight feet, are incredibly beautiful, pure white, crepe-paper-like petals surrounding a crown of glistening golden stamens. The appearance is reminiscent of a huge fried egg – sunny side up of course. As you lean in for a closer look, the blossoms exude a heady aroma of fresh apricots. The flowers are a magnet for honeybees and native pollinators.
But before you head out to plant one in your garden, fair warning should be given. First, a Matilija Poppy can be a very difficult plant to get started in a garden environment. Second, if it does take hold, it will spread aggressively by underground stems and will reappear several feet from where it was originally planted. Beware, and don’t even try to imprison it, as it always finds a way to escape even your best efforts.
In the right location Matilija Poppy is a beauty.
In the wrong location Matilija Poppy is a beast. If you do have the right location for a Matilija Poppy, perhaps a large, unwatered hillside or an enclosed parkway, there are a few things you should know about getting this plant started.
The first mistake is to plant Matilija Poppies now, in the spring, while they are blooming. Like most California native plants, fall planting is far more successful. Do not be discouraged if the plants in the nursery look a bit scruffy and bedraggled in October or November; that’s how they should look, they’ve just been through a hot, bone dry summer. But don’t worry, they are about ready to plump up and begin growing again. Fall is the time to plant a Matilija Poppy.
When removing the plant from its container, handle it gingerly. Do not disturb the roots or allow the soil to collapse. Be careful to position the plant in an area that has loose gravely or sandy soil; soil that water will travel through quickly. Do not use any planting mixes around the root ball, but some course sand or decomposed granite may be helpful if the soil is heavy or poorly drained.
For the first few months water your young plant just barely enough to keep it alive; rainfall will do most of the work for you. During the first summer your irrigations must also straddle a fine line; too much water and root rot will overwhelm the plant, to little and the adolescent plant will dehydrate and perish. Again, water only if absolutely necessary.
Once your Matilija Poppy gains a foothold, it will be very carefree. Large, established plants can tolerate some summer water, but don’t require it. Fertilizer is unnecessary as well, since a Matilija Poppy will need no extra encouragement to grow aggressively. In fall or early winter, after the flowers have passed and the foliage has declined, the entire plant should be cut back. Simply trim all of the tall flowered shoots down to as little as three or four inches above the soil. Shortly thereafter, new, lush foliage will emerge below these cuts, with blooms to follow.
If you love Matilija Poppies, but don’t have the space for one in your garden or the proper conditions for growing it, this is a good time to see them in their natural, native glory. A May drive along Santiago Canyon Road, in the hills of eastern Orange County, will reward you with several nice views of Matilija’s in full bloom. As you travel the road, especially between Cook’s Corner and Irvine Lake, look to the west, a few yards from the road. The huge saucer-sized flowers will be hard to miss.
Questions from Readers May 23.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar and his profile can be seen on the Mulch.