German poet and naturalist, A. von Chamisso, first collected and described the California Poppy while on a world scientific expedition in 1816. He named it for his associate, Dr. J.F. Eschscholtz, the ship's surgeon. Of course, long before that the California Natives had named it in their many languages, and knew the young leaves could be cooked for food or that a bit of root on an aching tooth reduced the pain.
A poppy is made of four, fan-shaped petals neatly coiled inside the pointed cap of the flower bud which precisely unfurls like a carefully folded flag on warm sunny days. At night and on chilly or rainy days the petals recoil-almost disappearing. On other flowers, the leafy structures outside the petals (sepals) are separated, but the poppy's are joined together forming a unique "elf cap." When this cap separates form the opening flower, it leaves behind a characteristic rim (torus) which is a distinguishing feature of the species.
The Spanish charmingly called it "copa de oro" or "cup of gold' and also "amapola." Sailing up and down the California coastline as the rays of the setting sun reflected off of the shiny petals, Spanish mariners saw the flame of poppies upon the coast ranges and exclaimed, "This is the land of fire."
The same scene excited the imagination of the '49ers on their way to the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada. After the gold had "played out," the miners set sail for new strikes in Chile, new Zealand, and Australia, and they used sand from the bluffs at San Francisco as ballast for their ships; in it were poppy seeds. Since then, these countries have had a widespread, but not entirely unwelcome, new weed. Gardens all over the world have been brightened by out golden poppy and flower breeders have developed many colorful varieties that range in hue from white to red-some even sport ruffles!
The masses of poppies and other flowers which carpeted the valleys in john Muir's time have been replace by plants that were brought inadvertently by the Spanish from the Mediterranean, Today, we see fields of tall grasses such a wild oats, ripgut, and medusa head, along with yellow star thistle. These weeds which shade and compete with native flowers, along with factors such as infrequent burning of hillsides and soil compacted by livestock, have diminished the poppy's abundance.
While most of Edward Stuhl's watercolors were painted in the filed on Mount Shasta, this area is above the normal range for the California Poppy. This painting was inspired form flowers gathered in the Santa Lucia Mountains in the spring of 1953 while Stuhl and his wife Rosa vacationed in the Monterey area. How pleased he must have been to record this glorious flower!
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Last updated: 05/06/02