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Matilija poppy.

Matilija poppy

At least 12 groups of people in the Westare, or could become, very fond of the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri and its relatives). Alphabetically, they are:

California native plant lovers

Flower arrangers


Lazy gardeners (big show for no effort)

Perennial border keepers


Picture painters

Plant propagators who like a challenge

Poster designers and collectors

Sunday drivers

Taxonomists (botanists who decide onplant names)

Water-frugal gardeners

What follows is a look at the Matilijafrom all of those perspectives, starting with it as a plant now blooming in gardens and in the wild--and looking forward to next fall and winter, the season for the mechanics: planting, propagating, and cutting back.

As a garden plant

The photographs at left show Matilijapoppy thriving in two Pacific Coast gardens some 1,190 miles apart. It's widely known for enjoying life in all of the West's mild-winter, low-elevation climates. Much less known is the fact that it grows and performs in the deserts and at high elevations. In short: grow it anywhere.

An Irish surgeon-botanist, ThomasCoulter, discovered the plant in California in 1831 or 1832. First seeds reached England in 1875, and, by late Victorian times, the plant had become a prized garden performer. The British never did perceive it as a tough hombre from California's dry arroyos. They grow it with ferns, hydrangeas, and other aristocrats.

Here in the West, one of Matilija's gardenroles is as a watered, tended, large-scale flower bed plant. Its other Western role is as a big, expansive drought-resistant plant. It can do this at the far edge of a maintained garden-of-decorum or at center stage in a laid-back, low-maintenance place.

In the maintained garden, you must be onguard against the plant's spreading rhizomes. In winter and spring, watch for new shoots popping up at a distance from the original plant. Dig up such offsets and as much as possible of the rhizomes that connect them to the mother plant; it's easier than digging up rooted runners of a traveling bamboo or wild blackberry. Dug-up rhizomes can themselves produce new plants--in fact, it's the most efficient way to propagate (see page 202).

Flower production is the same whateverthe setting: the new flowers open only at dawn, last about a week on the plant, and then neatly drop all their petals. They do this from May into July, when the unwatered ones start to slacken off, then quit for the year. Plants that get water (it can be very little) continue to bloom, though lightly, through late summer and then come back for a second bloom season in September and October.

On any one day during the May-Junebloom, a big plant might display 30 to 60 of the usually six-petaled, 8- to 10-inch-wide flowers.

The flowers do quite well cut; they'll lastthree to five days in water. They'll last longer if you burn the ends of the stems: stick them into a gas flame, candle, or match for five seconds.

Cut or on the plant, the flowers have somefragrance. Last June, we had many people smell them. Two-thirds found them pleasant ("delicate, sweet, summery'), a few were neutral, and a few more found the scent unpleasant ("too earthy'). The flowers smell best the day they open.

On our cover, you see a bee taking pollenfrom one of the flowers. Deer also like the blooms. They like to eat the white petals, they take or leave alone the yellow stamens, and they don't touch the leaves. Plant-damaging insects and mites seldom, if ever, harm the Matilija.

As a wild plant

The map and text on the opposite pageshow and tell about 27 places in Southern California where Matilijas have grown wild since before written history. Five more such areas are in Baja California.

One of the unique aspects of the Matilijacomes quickly to your attention when you get out of the car and look at the plants in the wild. Almost all grow in disturbed soil, mostly road cuts and old landslides.

The seeds are very shy about germinating,both in the wild or for man. In nature, you seldom see a young seedling (shoots from spreading roots, yes; seedlings, no).

Because of light rains this past winter,wild Matilijas may be a bit shorter and less floriferous than normal this year.

There's another wild, large-floweredwhite poppy that gets confused with Matilija: prickly poppy (Argemone). Only the flower is similar. Prickly poppy grows in some deserts, it's an annual or biennial, and it covers itself with mean stickers.

Matilija mechanics--fall and winter

To plant Matilijas, wait until October, thebest time in all of the West's low elevations. But, since availability is spotty, it might be wise to buy plants at nurseries now and keep them in their containers until October. (Or buy and plant them now and cross your fingers.)

In high elevations, where you can't plantin October, plant in spring and water well throughout the growing season. (The other big difference: in the mountains, bloom season begins in late June or July.)

Once a young plant does establish itself,it's as easy as almost any plant you can name for a gardener to grow or for nature to sustain. A started Matilija is as easy to grow as a nandina, rosemary, or vinca.

In fall or winter, cut the stems that carriedlast year's flowers back to within 2 to 10 inches of the ground. Plants will flower next year whether you cut them back or not. But, as you see directly above, accumulated old stems give unpruned Matilijas a dirty-underpinning look.

Fall, winter, and early spring are also thetime to propagate. See page 202.

Just for the record: yes, some people docall this plant "fried egg plant' for obvious reasons, but Sunset doesn't. Fried eggs are hot and greasy.

Also for the record, the next printing ofthe Sunset Western Garden Book will be changed to say that the Matilija poppy grows in all climate zones and that it blooms from May to July and longer.

Photo: The Matiliga plays its two best roles: at right--for Frieda and John Parker, Port Ludlow, Washington--it's the tough, self-sustaining, drought-resistant flower producer; below--for Ruth Borun, West Los Angeles--it's the back-row trouper in a highly maintained flower bed

Photo: Trabuco Canyon, Orange County, is one of the canyons in Southern and Baja California where you can see Matilijas blooming in the wild

Photo: You'll also see Matilijas on gallery walls

Watercolor by VirginiaPoachman, Danville, California

Watercolor by ElaineRogers, Ojai, California

Linoleum block printby Henry Evans, San Francisco

The threeartworks at left are but a tiny sampling of the Matilija renderings we found for sale in galleries last year, mostly in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Posters feature theflowers, too. Here is one year's worth
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jun 1, 1987
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