Of the California poppy, Mary Elizabeth Parsons wrote in 1897:
"Not until the morning is well advanced does it begin to unfurl its tightly rolled petals."
I've been writing a regional history column for the local paper, and my latest one is about how even the plants in our gardens can evoke a region's history. Go to the next paragraph for the beginning of the story:
The Whisper of History From Your California Garden
In the early years of European settlement in California, newcomers who headed into the Santa Clara Valley found themselves astonished by its beauty. Franciscan friar Pedro Font walked into the valley in 1776 with Captain Juan Bautista de Anza and as he later recalled in his journals: “The land is moist and the hills have an abundance of rosemary and herbs, sunflowers in bloom, vines as plentiful as a vineyard.”
The hillsides seemed to be on fire. When the Spanish realized they were looking at acres of brightly colored wildflowers, they named the flower Copa De Oro, or Cup of Gold. It was given the botanical name Eschscholtzia Californica, though you are most likely to know it as the California Poppy.
“It is difficult to exaggerate the charms of this wonderful flower,” wrote botanist Mary Elizabeth Parsons in her 1897 book, The Wild Flowers of California. “It revels in the sunshine.” The indigenous people liked to boil it or roast it on hot rocks, and then eat it in a salad. Pioneers used an extract as a mild substitute for morphine and a remedy for headaches. The Spanish fried it, added perfume and used the mixture on their hair.
California also has a wild peony and four different kinds of native roses. Other new plants the Europeans encountered were less benign. One, from the Sumach family, was used by local Indians for framing baskets and for barbecue spits. The Spanish, however, began to avoid it, discovering Rhus diversiloba brought on a nasty rash, which is why we call it Poison-Oak. No one is quite sure why California’s coastal tribes seemed immune, but they must have been, wrote scientist Edward Balls, or “the plant could not have had so many uses in their everyday lives.”
Other California wildflowers encountered by newcomers included three kinds of Nicotiana, or Indian Tobacco, smoked by Northern tribes in some ceremonies. California also has a native Apocynum cannabinum, commonly called Indian-Hemp. Used mostly for ropes, lariats, nets, and mats, a report from the nineteenth century also discretely mentions: “A tincture made from the root is a recognized drug in the pharmacopoeia.”
The Spanish brought their own gifts. Gardeners will immediately recognize Avena barbata for its annoying way of popping up in every flowerbed. It has a tall green stalk and a purple awn, fading in summer to the color of wheat, suggesting its common name—Spanish Oats. The padres brought the seeds from Europe and scattered them throughout California for their cattle. Like many transplants, they’ve taken root and refused to leave.
From such rich choices, it was botanist Sara Plummer Lemmon of Oakland, who urged the legislature in 1890 adopt the golden poppy our state flower, which became official in 1903. Though rumors abound it is illegal to pick them, in truth, state law doesn’t single them out, but prohibits the taking of anything from property that is not your own. If you have California poppies in your garden, feel free to pick at will. You can always infuse them for a headache, boil them for hair oil, or use them as a uniquely California garnish on your salad. Like Poison-Oak, Spanish Oats and our native cannabinum, they are living history in our California landscape. Just make sure you check with the Franchise Tax Board on that last botanical, before using it for anything other than a rope, a lariat, or a fish net.
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