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May 2011

Matilija Poppies - California's Giant White Tree Poppies

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The Matilija Poppy

 Romneya Coulteri

The most regally handsome poppy in the world is the giant white poppy, the stately Matilija,  Romneya coulteri, which is native to the southern part of the State.  This blossom is a famous one in European gardens where it was early transplanted.   In its native habitat,  it may be found occasionally from Santa Barbara southward into Lower California.  

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It is acknowledged by those who have studied the flower to be a plant of very catholic tastes,  for while it evidently prefers stream borders and steep,  almost inaccessible canon sides,  it is also found growing on open hillsides,  in dry stream beds,  or even in the fertile valleys.   It is not a common plant,  but is probably more plentiful in the Ojai Valley,  Ventura County,  and in the extreme southern part of the State. While journeying over the Santa Fe lines en route to San Diego about three years ago,  I had my first glimpse of these towering white poppies,  luxuriating in their native surroundings.  It was early morning and we passed a field of these beautiful,  golden-hearted blossoms shaking out their great,  diaphanous petals to the morning breezes.

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 It was a glorious sight and I have never forgotten it.  I do not remember the locality, but it was several hours before our train reached Los Angeles.  While in San Diego with my friend Miss Kate Sessions,  the widely known and well-beloved botanist,  I examined more closely some exceedingly fine specimens of the Romneya.  It is a smooth, stout,  perennial-rooted plant, somewhat bushy in nature, and grows anywhere from two to ten or twelve feet high, according to the nature of its habitat.

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It has handsome gray-green foliage, and its wonderful,  fragrant blossoms are from three- to as many as nine-inches in diameter. Its crepelike petals are a pure, glistening white, and the greenish white pistil is surrounded by hundreds of closely packed, bright yellow stamens, forming a huge golden center which sets off proportionately well the enormous blossoms. In Lower California the plant is prized by the Indians for remedial purposes.

~ Bertha Rice, Popular Studies of California Wildflowers, 1920

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For more information about the legend that accompanies the Matilija Poppy, see a previous post from last poppy season:  Matilija Poppy - Romneya Coulteri - Mythical Beauty

A beautiful stand of poppies (shown in these photographs) appears every year, in late springtime, on a little promintory of land that lies alongside Cabrillo Boulevard, between the Santa Barbara Cemetery, and the Bird Refuge (near Los Patos Way).