The California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, is one of those easy, breezy things that no garden should be without. It has the laid-back, sunny attitude you might expect from a Californian. All you have to do is sow direct by scattering some seeds in the right spot. If it is left to set seed, it will effortlessly dance around the garden and appear exactly where it should.
It loves to bask in the sun in free-draining soil – for example, on a gravel path edge, a rock garden or even a crack in a wall; but will do equally well in a container with plenty of grit added for drainage.
It hates disturbance – even the gentlest of handling as you remove it from a module tray can throw it off course. Which is why I like to sow it now, when the soils are warm and germination is quick, and keep sowing through to the end of June.
It is important that the seedlings don’t get shaded out by other emerging plants, which is the only other way to upset it. Don’t bury the seed – it needs light to germinate; make sure that the ground is weed-free, removing the roots of anything like dandelion or docks as they are the sort to do the shading out. Scatter the seed liberally, water in, and that’s it.
The searing orange flowers of these poppies works well alongside purple: the combination of verbenas and California poppies is an instant winner. And they can mingle well with lavenders and salvias, such as Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’. I love the subtle combination of underplanting them with Echinacea paradoxa, which has reflexed, pale buttery ray florets: the two offset each other perfectly.
There are some lovely California poppy cultivars out there; from the palest ‘Ivory Castle’ and ‘Rose Chiffon’ to the deep orange peel of ‘Aurantiaca’ or ‘Orange King’. There are the ruffled petals of ‘Frilled Rose’ in pink and brilliant yellows in among orange shades of E. californica subsp mexicana ‘Sun Shades’, and the unusual ‘Purple Gleam’, which has managed to pull a lovely deep lilac out of the gene pool and works very well with the blue-grey lacy foliage.
But if you want to grow for wildlife, stick to the species. It’s actually very low in nectar, but what it doesn’t have in sweetness it has in protein, which is essential for egg production. It is one of the most pollen-rich plants you can grow, but because it is not wind pollinated, won’t cause allergies.
Finally, the species makes the most wonderful tea. You can use aerial parts: flowers, stems, leaves, fresh or dried. It is a gentle tea that can reduce anxiety and aid sleep. It contains none of the alkaloids associated with opium poppies, so it’s safe for everyone, including children. It tastes delicious and is utterly uplifting, much like these sunny blooms.