California Heritage Plant for May 2018

Romneya coulteri or ‘Matilija Poppy’ is our pick for ‘California Heritage Plant for June 2018

I have always found it ironic that these plants are forever frozen in botanical records with names given them by invaders from other parts of the world who ‘discover’ them …. when in fact most native plants have centuries or millenia of association with and use by people who lived in California and Mexico.  Yes, the plant scientists who record these plants did admirable work, in some cases at great risk to their lives and fortunes, but we should remember that other people before these Europeans had their own names for these plants, knew how to cultivate and apply them in medicine and as a growing body of evidence shows us, are responsible for the dispersal of these species across vast tracts of land.
The lovely giant white poppy flowers of Matilija Poppy are no exception.
Named for Dr Thomas Coulter of Ireland (1793-1843)
Dr Coulter conducted a famous survey of Southern Californian plants in which he was greatly assisted by the pharmacological geniuses of native California people, the Chumash.  During this period the Chumash were resisting the Spanish missionary culture under the leadership of Chief Matilja.  So yes, the common name of this beautiful huge flower is linked to the native people if the scientific name is not.
The Chumash coexisted with a great wealth of California’s medicinal plants and understood their use better than anyone else.  The stems and sap of Matilja Poppy were used to treat skin and gum infection and inflammation.  Preparations were also applied as effective remedy for sunburns with some reports claiming similar outcomes to use of Aloe vera.
Matilija Poppy is a drought tolerant chaparral plant which spreads via rhizomes to fill a hospitable area quickly, preferring full sun and only winter water when naturalized.  In a large container she might need supplemental water a couple times a month during the warm season.   Rapid growth of herbaceous (soft tissue) stems reaches 5-9ft.  depending on maturity and should be followed by giant white blooms with yellow centers from May to July or longer.   Copious quantities of seed are produced but require fire to germinate.
At our nursery we let it run wild in the back and keep a smaller specimen contained up front which we easily keep compact with twice a year pruning.  Dead stems can be cut to the ground in winter if you find them unsightly, but do let the stems turn brown before removing as even when spent and fading, the stems are providing sustenance to roots which are storing energy for next years growth.  She does not like root disturbance and care should be taken when transplanting to avoid tearing or moving roots.

matilija poppy

1 gallon containers of Matilija Poppy are $14.99 at Ploughshares Nursery May 2018