Herbal KnowledgeFeb 2, 2022

Pharm Education: California Poppy

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is native to California, Oregon, Washington and the southwestern United States, and it has been naturalized in many other areas around the world. Though California Poppy is generally grown as a perennial in temperate climates, here at Herb Pharm, we grow it as an annual, as we harvest the whole plant every year.

It’s a relatively simple plant to establish in your garden. You can cast the seed on the surface of disturbed soil in fall or early spring. We direct-seed our California Poppy fields each fall, as the herb has a long taproot and doesn't like to be transplanted. The plant flourishes in open, sunny areas and readily self-seeds. California Poppy can reach up to a foot tall and the plants are quite a magnificent sight to behold in full bloom.

The flower bud is enclosed in a calyx (a protective layer) that is narrower at the top, reminiscent of a dunce cap. This is unusual, as most calyces embrace the flower from below. As the flower begins to open, the calyx lifts off and drops away, revealing a furled flower on a pink receptacle. The flower has four petals that are tightly wound, protecting a golden inner space that holds the stamens and pistil.

The flowers have a close relationship with the sun, opening mid-morning and closing in the evening or when the sun disappears on a cloudy day. California Poppy is traditionally used for calming support for the nervous system.*

April 6 is California Poppy Day. It is, in fact, the state flower of California, and it inspired a song that was sung in Bay Area schools during the 1940s and 1950s:

“Poppies, golden poppies, gleaming in the sun
Closing up at evening, when the day is done
Pride of California, flower of our state
Growing from the mountains to the Golden Gate.”

This herb was first described in 1816 by a Russian naturalist who ended up in San Francisco on an expedition. He named the flower after Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, his close friend and fellow naturalist, and the expedition's physician. Legends says that the Spanish settlers would guide their ships by the light of this flower blooming on the coastal hillsides, and that this plant was also known as the "cup of gold."

On our farm, California Poppy harvests begin on bright, calm spring mornings. A digger loosens the roots of these vibrant, sunny yellow-orange plants, then our farm crew and interns gently pull them from the soil, gathering them one armful at a time.

We pile the plants high in a wagon and head to the barn to wash them. The entire flowering plant then dries on screens. From there, California Poppy will go to our laboratory to be tested, then to our production facility to be extracted.


Herb at a glance

Botanical name: Eschscholzia californica
Common name(s): California Poppy
Native habitat: Western US
Parts used: Whole flowering plant
Botanical description: Solitary golden flowers with four petals, on long stems with alternate leaves
Use(s): traditionally used for calming support for the nervous system.*
Flavor profile: bitter with mild aromatic notes