Photographs by Sabina Rüber
The first year I got an allotment I scattered California poppy seed around the edges of my plot. Every year after that they’d come back, wonderful drifts of tangerine-orange flowers with ferny foliage that were guaranteed to lift the spirits or raise some sort of comment from passers-by. Native of course to California, where they are the state flower, these brightly-coloured blooms are wonderfully simple to grow: simply scatter the seed and they will do their stuff, and the stonier or poorer the soil the better. Their flowers unfurl from buds like little parasols, and even when fully open, they will close again at the fading of the light in the evening, opening once again at the touch of the sun the next day. After blooming they form long seedpods that audibly crack as they split open to expel the seeds that will grow again the following year.
For a patch of empty ground, or in a wildflower meadow, you can‘t beat the species itself in that cheerful orange – or the slightly larger flowered ‘Orange King’ – but if the orange hue is too much there are cultivars in more mellow colours. The white ‘Alba’ is for the minimalists among us, pure white with contrasting golden antlers in the centre, or you could try ‘Peach Sorbet’, which has creamy palest apricot blooms. ‘Rosebud Orange’ is a double form in very dark orange, while ‘Pink Bush’ has both single and double flowers in pastel pink.
California poppies have taproots that resent being disturbed, so it is always better to direct sow. Sow as soon as the ground as warmed up in mid spring, or in late summer, when seed would be scattered naturally by existing plants. Prepare the ground by digging it over and raking it to a fine tilth and then mix the seed with sand and broadcast in drifts or clumps throughout a border, or on any empty patch of land. The seeds should germinate with little trouble, and should only need watering in times of extreme drought. This is a plant that mixes well with other sun-loving, drought-tolerant plants, especially silver-leaved plants such as santolina or artemisia, or with mauve-hued lavenders or salvias.
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