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California Poppies
Naturalist Michael Ellis pays tribute to the state flower.

By Michael Ellis

Slowly riding my bicycle through Santa Rosa last week, I was struck by the number of California poppies growing in everyone's garden and even popping up through cracks in the sidewalk. I have seen this exact flower cultivated in the far reaches of our planet; Chile, South Africa, London and even -- gasp -- North Carolina. The California State Legislature made an excellent choice in 1903 when they unanimously voted the California poppy our state flower.

This poppy is found in every single California county but one. It comes in a range of color types; totally orange, totally yellow, orange with yellow centers, yellow with orange centers. One taxonomist concluded there were over 90 different species but now most botanists agree there is only one California poppy but with several varieties.

And by the way, it is not specifically illegal to pick a California poppy, as every school child will tell you. Actually it is against the law to pick any plant -- herb, tree or shrub, not just poppies -- that are growing on public and private land. Of course you may pick poppies in your own garden.

In October, 1816 the Russian ship, "Rurik," sailed into San Francisco Bay. Because the poppy blooms from February all the way to November, it was noticed and collected by the ship's naturalist and he named it for the physician on board, Johann Frederich Eschscholtz.

Eschscholzia californica is the scientific name. The Mexicans call it copa de oro -- the cup of gold -- and I am certain each native tribe had their name for this beauty. It grows in Oregon and Washington, to Baja California and east all the way to New Mexico.  

To quote John Thomas Howell the author of "Marin Flora," "No poet has yet sung the full beauty of our poppy. No painter has successfully portrayed the satiny sheen of its lustrous petals. In its abundance, this colorful plant should not be slighted: cherish it and be ever thankful that so rare a flower is common."

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads tours throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

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