PLANT OF THE WEEK #9: Eschscholzia californica

One of my favourite games to play in surveying a sumptuously planted border or naturalistic-style garden is ‘spot the annual’.  Long ago in gardening lore, annual and perennial borders were very much thought of as separate beasts, but now the fashion of throwing them together has never been more in-vogue, it’s strange to me their usefulness amongst perennials can sometimes be overlooked or neglected.

Case in point; the tongue-twisting Eschscholzia californica, the California poppy.  I want to write sonnets to its flowers as they open and close as day and night unfold.

It’s an annual whose dainty, butterfly-like dancing flowers belie its robust constitution.  I’d been an ardent admirer and grower of it for years, but seeing it growing abundantly wild in the railway lines of San Francisco about a year ago sealed its status as one of my all-time favourites.  Anything that will grow in railway ballast successfully and flower defiantly for months on end deserves ‘champion’ status.

They begin flowering in October and last right the way through until first frost without so much of a skeric of extra attention.  It’s now late April and is still flowering in my front garden.  

My hands-down favourite form is the orange, which is to me an frustratingly polarising colour amongst gardeners.  I once coveted a fellow student’s wooden picture frame made in highschool art class because it was painted in a deep shade of purple with bright orange splatters flicked from a paintbrush.  I’ve been a bit obsessed with that colour combination ever since.  If orange stubbornly offends they also come in yellows, ivories, reds, purples and pinks with many double-flowered cultivars available as well.  

Plant them once and you’ll never be without them, but they’re never thuggish.  The alternate fine lobed foliage tends to ramble amongst rather than dominate other plants and the glaucus blue-green foliage colour compliments silvers in the garden while delightfully jazzing up more stolid greens.

In our worst drought-addled summers here in temperate Australia they can occasionally give up the ghost, but then that most useful of qualities only an annual can provide kicks in – it sets seed abundantly.  When late summer or autumn rain comes I’ll get a second generation of plants that germinate and begin flowering in a matter of a couple of weeks.  I love the slapdash abandon you can place them with – get the spot wrong and the next generation has the admirable quality of popping up in just the right spot, sometimes in the right spot you never knew you wanted them in.  Spot the annual, indeed.  


James Beattie is a gardener working in Melbourne.  A graduate of Burnley, his work has since seen him traverse indigenous habitat restoration and management in the greater Melbourne area and writing content for Gardening Australia on ABC TV.  For the past three years he’s been running his own private gardening business focusing on plant-driven garden design and implementation. Follow James on Instagram @the_hoticologist.

Discussion

  1. Olivier Filippi gives it his highest drought resistance rating which he applies to almost nothing but I find it is best started in the autumn to perform well in the dry. I picked up some pots labelled as ‘Red Chief’ in a Castlemaine nursery and was largely indifferent to its virtues but now after having raised some from seed couldn’t be more impressed. ‘Red Chief’ is outstanding lush and rich though like a lot of the new cultivars short in stem.

  2. A few years ago I bought a packet of ‘Jelly Beans’ California poppy seeds from Diggers. I planted them in a raised veggie bed and have enjoyed them ever since, as have the bees. My children adore all the colours, picking petals to press them. Once the seed heads start forming, I send the children out to harvest them with scissors and ice cream containers. We save the dried seeds and plant them out again the following summer. This is a good way to control the spread of the millions of seeds. There are always a few that get away, but they fill in gaps between the summer seedlings. They are a much-loved addition to our garden.

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