How to Plant, Grow and Care For California Poppies
California Poppies are bright native flowers that are ideal for water-wise gardens. Gardening expert Madison Moulton discusses Eschscholzia californica, with tips on how to successfully plant and care for them.
A native wildflower that is bright, beautiful, and incredibly low-maintenance – you can’t ask for much more from California poppies. Scientifically Eschscholzia californica, the state flower of California is famous among gardeners for its ease of growth, filling empty spots in your garden with little effort.
Whether you’re growing them for their ornamental value, as an early-developing pollinator plant, or because you have a tough area of your garden where nothing else seems to grow, you will reap many rewards from this wonderful perennial. Simply sprinkle the seeds onto open soil, give them a dash of water, and wait for the sunny colors to emerge.
While few have trouble growing California poppies (even beginners), this guide will cover everything you need to know to get the most out of these plants.
California Poppy Plant Overview
Plant Type Perennial
Species Eschscholzia californica
Native Area North America
Exposure Full sun
Watering Requirements Low
Pests & Diseases Aphids, thrips, powdery mildew
Soil Type Sandy
Soil pH Acidic, neutral
What Are California Poppies?
Often blanketing hillsides of the southwest with their vibrant orange blooms, California poppies are the quintessential wildflower of California.
Unlike poppies from the Papaver genus you may recognize, California poppies are actually from the Eschscholzia genus, scientifically named Eschscholzia californica. They are named after 18th-century entomologist Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, given by his friend German botanist Adelbert von Chamisso, hinting at the history of this plant.
The bright blooms may look delicate, but the plant is incredibly resilient. Withstanding hot summers and poor soils with ease, the seeds can be sprinkled in tough empty areas of your garden to fill them with impressive color. They are great for low-maintenance gardens, needing very little attention once established.
California poppies typically flower in mid to late spring. Depending on your local climate and growing conditions, they can continue to flower well into summer. In warm climates similar to their native conditions, they will grow as perennials. However, even when planted as annuals in cooler climates, the plants will self-seed and continue to pop up year after year.
Although they’re now a staple in many American gardens, California poppies were first officially described and named by Europeans during a Russian exploration on the ship “Rurick” in the early 19th century.
Adelbert von Chamisso visited California in 1816 as part of this expedition and named the flower after Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz (although the homage is questionable, considering he left out the ‘t’ in his name). This beloved plant eventually became California’s state flower in 1903, becoming a symbol of the state.
The California poppy is largely native to the southwestern region of the United States, although it has become naturalized in warmer regions of the country.
Its native range extends from southern Washington along the west coast and eastward into parts of Texas. But its true home, as you may have guessed from the name, is the state of California. Here, it thrives in sunny areas and sandy soil, creating carpets of orange from late spring into summer.
The iconic bright petals of the California poppy open up during the day to reveal a bright yellow center and close at night or during cloudy weather. They are quite compact (especially when compared to other poppies), growing to about 12 inches tall. This makes them great for borders where they won’t be overshadowed by taller plants or even in container gardens.
One often overlooked bonus of these plants is the foliage. The leaves have a wonderful bluish or gray hue and almost look like fern leaves thanks to their interesting shape. This foundation provides amazing contrast when the flowers pop up above the foliage.
Left to their own devices, California poppies self-sow, dropping small seeds that will germinate the following spring to introduce a new carpet of color. This is particularly handy if you’re after a wild, meadow-like look in your garden.
California poppies are typically grown for their ornamental value, but there is much more to them than meets the eye.
These plants have a long history of medicinal use and are still used today in herbal medicine. But as always, it’s important to discuss any potential medicinal uses with a doctor, especially if you are taking other medications it may interact with.
Aside from that, they are an absolute favorite among gardeners for their low-maintenance nature. The sunny hues of California poppies can brighten up any garden and look even more impressive when planted en masse. They are pollinator magnets – a great candidate for bee or butterfly gardens.
In California, the “super bloom” that happens every few years after a rainy winter draws people to state parks to see the brilliant flush of bright orange flowers and to take photos of expanses of land that practically glow with new life. In spring, they are a common sight across the whole state!
Where To Buy California Poppies
California poppy seed packets are widely available from seed companies and nurseries. There are a few different types to choose from, depending on what kind of color you are after. The classic orange California poppies are a standard choice, but you can also opt for unique shapes and colors found in cultivars like ‘Mission Bells’ or ‘Mikado.’
California poppies’ ease of growth starts at planting time. As they don’t like to be transplanted, it’s best to direct sow wherever you want the plant to stay for the rest of the season. Once you’ve decided on your spot, a simple sprinkle and some early care will deliver strong plants that perform season after season.
Start by picking a well-draining spot in your garden with plenty of sunlight. A full sun spot produces the highest yield and ensures the flowers will open fully. These hardy plants like sandy conditions and are happy in somewhat poor-quality soil as long as it drains well.
You might want to till the soil lightly if it is particularly dense just to help the early roots better establish. But the soil doesn’t need to be worked excessively before planting. Once tilled, scatter the seeds over the area, lightly press them into the soil or rake them in, and water.
California poppies are typically planted in the fall. This is when they would naturally start their life cycle in the wild (dropped from the summer flowers). But if you miss the fall window, early spring is also suitable if you’re happy with slightly later flowers.
Soon after planting, keep the soil lightly moist by watering regularly. Once the seeds have germinated – usually in a couple of weeks – you can leave the soil to dry out a little before watering again. Also, take rain into consideration to avoid waterlogging the soil.
Once they’re happily growing, these plants will self-seed and return year after year. This may be a concern for some gardeners, but luckily, they’re rarely invasive and are usually easily managed with a little light weeding if you want to remove them.
How to Grow
California poppies are as stunning as they are resilient. The reward you receive when the plants are in full bloom is well worth the very little effort it takes to keep them happy. They only require a bit of sun and an occasional watering to thrive.
The sun is probably the most vital of all the growing conditions to manage. Eschscholzia californica thrives in full sun, requiring at least six hours of sunlight daily. The more, the better, especially in cooler regions.
If planted in a shady area, the plants may become leggy or stretched, losing their compact shape and vibrancy. You’ll also see far fewer flowers, and any flowers that do pop up may remain closed rather than fully open and basking in the sun.
If you’re in a region with particularly intense sunlight, some shade during the peak afternoon hours may not negatively impact growth. But a regular drink of water can also help them manage the heat well, adapting quickly thanks to their warm native conditions.
Once established, California poppies are considered drought-tolerant and don’t require frequent watering. That doesn’t mean you should forget about them completely, but rather that they’re happy with an occasional drink of water around once per week if there hasn’t been any rain. Young poppies, however, require consistent moisture for strong root development.
You should be more concerned about overwatering than underwatering for these plants. The soil should be allowed to dry out completely before the next watering session to match the conditions they receive in their native habitats. Some extra water may be needed during unexpected hot spells, but not so much that it becomes waterlogged.
If you’re growing your poppies in containers, a potting mix amended with a little sand to improve drainage is ideal. Containers will dry out faster than plants in the ground, especially when placed in full sun. Consistent light watering for container-grown plants will keep the roots happy, helping the plant produce more flowers.
California poppies aren’t fussy about their soil. The only condition to really focus on is drainage, as they require well-drained soil and won’t tolerate waterlogging, as mentioned. If you’re dealing with clay soil, it must be thoroughly amended to improve conditions before planting. Alternatively, stick to planting in containers to save yourself the trouble.
Look for a spot in your garden with soil that is slightly sandy or gritty, with a neutral to slightly acidic pH. Don’t worry too much about pH unless your soil is significantly alkaline or acidic. A bit of compost or organic matter will also help improve soil structure and the overall soil health.
Temperature and Humidity
California poppies are native to California and thrive in USDA Zones 8 to 10, although they can be grown as annuals pretty much anywhere. They prefer warmth and don’t grow to their full potential in the cold.
These poppies prefer dry to moderate air. While they can handle slightly higher humidity, excessive moisture can lead to fungal diseases you don’t want to deal with for these otherwise unproblematic plants.
California poppies don’t rely on fertilizers to grow well, especially when planted in healthy soil from the start. But if you want to give them an extra boost to promote prolific flowering, mix a slow-release fertilizer into the soil in spring to last for the rest of the season. This is only recommended when planting in incredibly poor soils, as these plants are generally happy without the added nutrients.
If you do want to fertilize, it’s important to follow instructions exactly and never apply more than recommended (or, preferably, apply slightly less than recommended). Overfertilizing will disrupt growth rather than help it and may even limit potential flowering.
California poppies are relatively easy to maintain. Deadheading will encourage the plant to produce more blooms and keep your garden looking neat. Just leave some flowers on towards the end of the season for self-seeding.
While you may consider mulching to conserve soil moisture and suppress weeds, it’s important to do so carefully or consider skipping the mulch around these plants. Excessive moisture retention, especially when they are trying to germinate, can quickly lead to rot. Less is certainly more when it comes to watering and mulching these plants.
Growing In Containers
Although naturally adapted to wide open landscapes, California poppies can grow surprisingly well in containers. If you don’t have extensive garden space or want to bring a bit of color to patios or balconies, these plants are worth a try.
Before you plant, ensure the container you’re using has plenty of drainage holes. Also, use a well-draining potting mix, ideally with some sand added to mimic their natural growing conditions. If your container is kept outdoors, keep it in a sheltered spot away from excessive rain to stop it from filling up with water.
While the plants are drought-tolerant, containers do dry out faster than garden soil. This means you may have to water more frequently. But it’s still important to let the soil dry out between watering sessions to avoid overwatering and potential rot.
These poppies love a sunny spot, so place your container where it will get at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. They aren’t really suitable for indoor growth as the blooms will not develop or open when light is insufficient.
California poppies like to spread out, so you’ll need a container wide enough to give them space to grow without restriction. Plant the seeds sparsely to give each seedling room without overcrowding. Regularly deadhead the spent blooms to encourage more flowering and to keep the plant looking its best.
Propagation of California poppies, just like other aspects of their care, is straightforward. Either you allow them to do the work for you (self-seeding), or you can collect the seeds at the end of the season to move them to other parts of your garden or containers.
At the end of their flowering season, California poppies produce seed pods that burst open and disperse seeds onto the ground. If you leave these to grow naturally, they’ll germinate and emerge the following spring, effectively propagating themselves with little to no effort from you.
If you prefer more control over where your new plants grow or want to keep some seeds to plant in containers next year, you can collect seeds from the pods once they’ve dried out. Simply let the seed pods dry on the plant, then carefully collect them and remove the seeds. Plant immediately or store in a cool, dry place over winter to plant again in spring.
California poppies encounter very few growing problems thanks to their ease of care. But if you notice any of these issues on your plants, they are quick and easy to rectify, ensuring your poppies thrive.
Lack of Flowers
A lack of flowers is typically caused by inadequate light. California poppies need a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight a day to bloom prolifically. They may also slow their flowering in periods of intense heat. If your poppies are not flowering well, consider moving them to a sunnier location. Regular deadheading also encourages more blooms and prolongs the flowering period.
Wilting can be a sign of both underwatering and overwatering. California poppies are drought-tolerant, but they still need water to survive. Check the soil’s moisture levels if the leaves are wilting or turning brown. If it’s excessively dry, increase your watering frequency. Alternatively, if the soil is waterlogged, allow it to dry out before watering again.
Often the result of overcrowding and competition, weak stems are common. These plants need space to spread, so it’s best to thin young plants to around 12 inches apart. Overwatering and stem rot can also cause the stems to fall over, although you’ll likely notice overwatering issues long before this sign emerges.
While California poppies are resistant to many common pests, you may occasionally encounter aphids or thrips. These can usually be controlled with a mild insecticidal soap or by introducing beneficial insects like ladybugs into your garden.
The most common issues affecting California poppies are caused by overly wet conditions, leading to fungal diseases like powdery mildew.
Avoid watering your poppies from above to keep the foliage dry, and always water in the morning so any moisture on the leaves can evaporate during the day. If you notice signs of disease, such as spotting or discoloration, remove and dispose of the affected plant material to stop the issue from spreading.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are California Poppies edible?
California poppy flowers are edible when cooked and popular amongst foragers. However, this plant is in a plant family that contains many poisonous plants; caution is advised when using this. These plants also have been traditionally used medicinally, but check with your doctor for counterindications before using them in that way.
Is it illegal to pick California Poppies?
There’s a popular myth that it’s illegal to pick California poppies (with some citing it’s because they are the California state flower). However, there is no law preventing picking of these plants. It is, however, illegal to pick them or remove any other plant from state and national parks, or any other public land without permission (as it is for all plants). Similarly, if harvesting on privately-owned land, it’s only legal to do so with the permission of the land owner.
When do California Poppies bloom?
California poppies start to bloom around mid to late spring. Depending on the weather and growing conditions, they can continue to flower into summer.
Are California Poppies perennials?
In their native range, California poppies are considered short-lived perennials, coming back year after year. However, in colder climates, they are often grown as annuals. One of the great things about these flowers is their ability to self-seed, so even if they’re grown as annuals, you will see them pop up again the next year.
Now that you know how to add California Poppies to your garden, the next step is finding the perfect variety to plant, and getting started. By following the tips outlined here, you’ll have some of these beautiful flowers growing all over your flowerbeds in no time!