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Can You Go To Jail For Picking California's State Flower?

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Up close with a California golden poppy.  (Rusty/Flickr)

Bay Curious listener Josh Brett grew up Oakland, and was told from a young age that it is illegal to pick California’s state flower: the golden poppy.

“It was sort of just common knowledge as a kid growing up in the Bay Area in the 90s that it was illegal,” he says. “You might even go to jail for it!”

Josh Brett
Josh Brett (Courtesy of Josh Brett)

Brett isn’t sure where he first heard this warning — maybe older siblings, parents or teachers. But now that he’s all grown up, he wants to know, is it true?

He asked Bay Curious:

“Is it illegal to pick California golden poppies?”

Turns out this myth is sort of true because it’s illegal to pick any plant found in state and federal parks. If you pick one, you could be prosecuted for a misdemeanor crime punishable with a fine up to $1,000, and even 6 months in jail.

It’s also illegal to harm plants on other people’s property unless you get permission. That means one of the few places you can pick poppies without worry is in your own backyard.

Even if you wanted to pick the poppy, that’d be a waste, says Robin Binaoro, a seed ecologist at the Marin Headlands Nursery. “They’re not great flowers to pick to put in a bouquet because right when you pick ’em the petals start to fall off.”

He collects the seeds of the poppy — scientifically known as eschscholzia californica — legally.

“Once the flower dries out, the slightest touch will cause it to pop and the seeds can shoot several feet away,” says Binaoro.

Binaoro recommends keeping your poppies in the ground, where you can watch them respond to the light.

“They’re phototropic … on a sunny day you’ll see them open up, on a cloudy day they’ll stay closed,” he says.

Robin Binaoro at the Marin Headlands Nursery
Robin Binaoro at the Marin Headlands Nursery (Jessica Placzek/KQED)

Before It Was The State Flower

The poppy became California’s state flower in 1903, but it had many uses before the state of California even existed.

The Native Americans of the Bay Area, the Ohlone, had a lot of uses for the golden poppy, says Desiree Muñoz. She’s Rumsen Ohlone, and a ranger at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. She says the Ohlone would boil the poppy in water to make a treatment that would get rid of pesky bugs that like to live on your scalp in your hair.

The vibrant color was also a helpful signpost. Muñoz’s sister says that the Ohlone used to plant poppies atop sacred burial sites along the coast, called shell mounds.  The flower’s bright color would help direct ships into the bay.

The golden poppy also has narcotic qualities.

“Sometimes the boys, when they’re fasting, they used to use the Poppy to help them on their vision quests,” says Muñoz.

Most poppies are a little bit narcotic. But they vary in intensity, the California Poppy is much milder than the opium poppy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get you really high.

What does our listener, Josh Brett, think of all this?

“Using them as color makes a lot of sense. I was not aware of their use as a vision quest aid or de-licing. That’s a very nice, multifaceted little flower,” says Brett.


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