Matilija Poppy, “Queen of California Flowers”

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Romneya ‘White Cloud’ – Matilija Poppy

Matilija Poppy has been called the “Queen of California Flowers.” In the words of Mary Elizabeth Parsons, from The Wild Flowers of California, 1897: “The Matilija poppy (pronounced ma-til’li-ha) must be conceded the queen of all our flowers. It is not a plant for small gardens, but the fitting adornment of a large park, where it can have space and light to rear its imperial stems and shake out its diaphanous flowers. It is justly far-famed, and by English gardeners, who now grow it successfully, it is regarded a priceless treasure, and people go from many miles around to see it when it blooms. It is to be regretted that our flowers must go abroad to find their warmest admirers.”

Matilija Poppy, unique and distinct, is one of the most recognized and beloved of California’s native plants. The large white blooms are the size of a saucer.  The petals look like wrinkled crepe paper, the center is a bright yellow disk.  Some have likened the flower to the appearance of a fried egg.  A solitary bloom is a very fine thing, but a large stand of Matilija in full bloom is a sight to behold!  Hundreds of huge white flowers borne at eye-level on long straight stems, contrasted by attractive blue-green foliage… a real show stopper in late spring/early summer!

Matilija poppies are only found in a few locations in California.  Within their range, they prefer gravelly soil, sometimes on the sides of stream banks or alongside a road.  Their appearance always seems a surprise, as they are not common. They can be found in sunny chaparral and coastal sage scrub in coastal and inland regions of southern California.

ImageWhile easy to grow in the garden, in the nursery, the species (Romneya coulteri and R. trichocalyx) are difficult to propagate.  Seeds will not germinate unless they have experienced the flash heat of wild fire.  At Tree of Life Nursery, pine needles are ceremoniously burned across the tops of the freshly sown seed flats.  Germination usually begins within a few days. Seedlings are tiny and they are vulnerable to the elements.

The best garden variety is a supposed hybrid between the two species.  Theodore Payne first discovered it in a southern California nursery in 1940.  The selection he made had much larger blooms, attractive lush foliage and a slightly more compact habit than the species forms.  He introduced it as ‘White Cloud’ and first offered it for sale sometime before 1956; the exact details are now lost in history.

At one time the hybrid plant was all but lost in California horticulture.  In the early 1970’s, Art Tyree (who had worked with Theodore Payne in the 1960’s) knew of a stand of ‘White Cloud’ growing in a private garden in Pasadena. Tree of Life Nursery obtained permission to secure a few small root cuttings.  Since ‘White Cloud’ is a cultivar, it must be grown vegetatively. Seed would not be suitable and stem cuttings are practically impossible. From those few cuttings thirty years ago Tree of Life Nursery has planted and maintained large stands of mother plants, of the exact clone that Payne had selected almost seventy years ago.

ImageMatilija poppy is a clumping perennial with long, upright blue-green stems and foliage. Plants reach 5 to 8 feet tall and spread by underground stems to form large colonies. The plants can be difficult to establish in a garden, but once established will thrive. Don’t plant anywhere where the vigorous spreading from underground runners would not be welcome.

Transplant carefully in cool weather to avoid disturbing roots and provide monthly watering and well-drained soil. The plant is drought tolerant and will not survive continually wet roots, such as in the middle of lawn (yes, this has been attempted). Matilija Poppy looks beautiful in roadside and parkway plantings, along fencelines, on slopes, in large scale planters and borders, and as an accent for entrances.  Cut it back hard after flowering (September-October) to remove old stems and allow for new spring growth.

Article adapted by Laura Camp with permission from Tree of Life Nursery, californianativeplants.com

27 thoughts on “Matilija Poppy, “Queen of California Flowers”

  1. To see a large stand of Matillija Poppy in the bay area drive down hiway 280 in late spring in the area north of SanJose. Most of the landscaping is planted with natives and the poppies have multiplied all over the banks.

    • yes!! absolutely beautiful. But one thing you must know about Matillija Poppy is that it needs good drainage. Waste of money and time to try to grow it in clay soil.

  2. We have a two year old matilija poppy in our garden in Albuquerque NM at 6,000 feet. I remember plants in CA dying back after flowering, but we had no flowers this year and it is still GREEN. Should I cut it back? How about overwintering? Last year when it was “just a pup” we covered it with leaves and it thrived this summer. DON’T WANT TO LOSE IT!

    • Hi marcia:

      Don’t have much experience with it at 6000 feet and below freezing. In Southern Cal, they do go dormant in the winter, and it is a common landscape practice to cut it back all the way to the ground now, before winter. I think I would treat it like a rose, like you did last year, protect the base with leaves or mulch, make sure they are well-watered in the winter, and prune them back after the last frost but before they break dormancy.

  3. I just saw this magnificent poppy in full bloom in Florence, Oregon in a rock garden in a front yard. It had a wonderful fragrance. It’s owner said the plant had been there many years.

    • Hi Vanessa:

      Here’s a couple possible sources: Theodore Payne Foundation, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, you might have to go as far as Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, which does not have it in stock this season, but does grow it. Sounds like you have an ideal situation for this plant.

  4. We live in East Temecula,CA and we are having trouble identifying a native plant. WE have found 3 specimens within a 15 acre area between me and my neighbor. The flowers look exactly like Matilija poppies but the plant is more thistle like. VErykah silvery gray foliage with lots and lots of stickers. It has the hairy bristle seed pods like the pics I find of the Matilija poppy. Same white tissue paper petals and bright yellow centers but the foliage is very different from what I see in pics. Any idea what we are seeing? Looks like a cross between a thistle and a Matilija poppy. Very pretty and striking and thanks to all the stickers nothing eats it. Any help identifying this plant would be gaily appeciated. Thanks, Trish

    • We have a Nursery in Rainbow (RHN) where we grow Matilija and many other natives. We might be able to help identify your plants we are just a few miles away. You can all us 760/723-5556 and leave us a message or my cell 310/384-7549. Patrice

  5. FINALLY 2 months of looking and digging I finally found out what it is. It’s called Aŕgemone Muniz or Prickly Poppy which explains the Matilija type flowers and the thistle like plant. Very striking plant. We will leave in the landscape and see if it will naturally reseed itself then we will transplant to desired locations to a old livestock and dog encounters.

    • You’re right, Trish, Argemone munita, or Prickly Poppy must be the plant you are seeing. When it is profuse, it is amazing, and even just one plant can be really striking. It’s good in garden situations as well as beautiful in the wild.

  6. It’s April 3, 2016 and my matilija poppy has three flowers that are wide open and beautiful. Live in San Diego,Ca, in the city itself, not the outskirts, and I finally got this sucker to grow after at least three tries. I only have sun in the front yard, so I planted the poppy in between my aloe, pencil cactus, tomato plants and some yellow daisies that have reseeded themselves for years. The plant itself is 5 to 6 feet tall and is full of buds waiting to open. I added gravel and some sand to the soil when I planted the poppy and watered it more than I’ve been told to. Can’t wait to see it cover most of my front yard!

    • That’s great to hear, Sam! It’s early for matilija poppy bloom, but lots of early bloomers this year. Interesting about the watering.

  7. I live in Temescal Valley and have the pleasure of having over thirty Matilija Poppy bushes growing on the hill behind me. Last year was the first year they did not bloom in about thirty years because of the drought. These usually bloom heavy the last week of May into June.

    Also in Temescal Valley are several other areas where they bloom. Does any one know if they are on the endangered plant list?

      • I remember reading many years ago in the Autobahn Society that this poppy was on the endangered list because of the all home building. I know that the some of the ones behind my house will be gone because of this.

      • They did bloom and are still in bloom thanks to that wonderful rain. There are about 30-40 different plants spread out. I have been educating our neighbors where to see them around the valley hear.(Temescal Valley) south of Corona.

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  10. I am in marin county, Northern California and after firing my ‘weed wacker’ gardener years ago, these amazing plants began to surface on a seriously hot dry slope on the side of my house and are now the talk of the neighborhood! Gorgeous and fascinating to look at. I feel so privileged that they crept out of ‘nowhere’ to join my cultivars and add to the exquisite beauty of our coastal clime. I dread thinking they had been whacked to near oblivion without my knowing!!

    • Well done, Miranda! So many areas could benefit from smart gardening like you practiced. First task is to know the plants…

  11. I live 11 miles inland in Vista CA and have been successful growing Matilija Poppies and they are spreading nicely which is great on our acre property. My issue is that in early July last year and this most of the leaves have burnt to a crisp (with some sparse green leaves) and they are quite unsightly. It is now mid-August and I usually cut them down in late September or early October. ? is can I cut them down now or best to wait. Thanks for any info.

    • Suggestion here from Mike Evans, Tree of Life Nursery, is to cut them back halfway now, and then later cut them all the way back.

      If you have further garden inquiries, give gardenhelp@californianativeplants.com a try! Mike Evans from Tree of Life Nursery is manning the email…

      This was a good year for Matilija Poppy! I was seeing them all over, especially driving through San Diego. Glad they are working for you in Vista.

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