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.
While 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.
Matilija 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