The quieter, gentler poppies.
As glorious as a field of California poppies can look from the freeway, that irrepressible orange can dominate a garden. It's shockingly visible, like the fluorescent safety, vests worn by highway maintenance crews. Fortunately, other varieties with the same virtues as Eschscholzia californica - satiny petals, ferny foliage, simplicity of care - come in softer colors.
E. californica 'Maritima', a coastal version of the orange California poppy, has clear lemon yellow flowers with small orange blotches at the throats. It's compatible with a wide range of flower colors. A true perennial, it's an excellent choice for a border.
The plant's low mounding habit also makes it handsome in meadow lawns. Dave Fross of Native Sons Wholesale Nursery in Arroyo Grande, California, has grown 'Maritima' in his meadow for eight years. It reseeds freely, he says, and it comes true from seed as long its orange cousin isn't in the vicinity. When the two poppies cross, the orange throat blotches on 'Maritima' grow bigger with each generation until the flowers are pure orange.
'Moonglow', a cream-colored variety of E. californica, is mellow enough for an English garden. 'Mahogany Red', an English hybrid with deep rust-red flowers, is another attractive option.
A search through seed catalogs will turn up many other E. californica hybrids in a wide range of colors and as bi-colors. Seed is usually sold mixed. Standouts are 'Mission Bells', semidoubles in a mix of cream, pink, and orange; 'Double Ballerina Mixed', doubles and semidoubles in shades of yellow, orange, rose, and scarlet; and 'Monarch Mixed', singles and semidoubles in a range from yellow to cerise. 'Thai Silk', a ruffled semidouble, is often available in single colors as well as in a mix of pinks.
The easiest Eschscholzia to blend into the garden is E. caespitosa, the tufted California poppy. This 6- to 12-inch-tall annual has pale yellow flowers with a faint lemon scent. Use it as an edging, mixed with other short wildflowers, or as a bulb cover.
WHEN AND HOW TO SOW POPPIES
In the West's mild-winter climates, sow seeds from mid-September through January (sow in fall for winter bloom or in late winter for spring bloom). In cold climates, wait until early spring to sow.
Hoe or pull weeds from areas you want to plant. Amend the soil lightly with compost, then water to force more weeds; hoe or pull this second crop.
Broadcast seeds over the amended soil. Cover them lightly with additional compost or potting soil.
Irrigate to begin germination, or wait for winter rains to do it for you.
WHERE TO BUY POPPY SEEDS
Catalogs are free unless noted.
Larner Seeds, Box 407, Bolinas, CA 94924; (415) 868-9407 (catalog $2).
Park Seed, Cokesbury Rd., Greenwood, SC 29647; (864) 223-7333.
Thompson & Morgan, Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08527; (800) 274-7333.