What a wondrous, stunning sight the crew must have seen as the Russian ship Rurik dropped anchor in a sequestered cove of San Francisco Bay in 1816: hill after rolling hill rising above deep blue water, cloaked with brilliant flowers that were the color of gold.
In this age of sail and discovery, the Rurik was on a scientific expedition. Commanded by Lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue, it had visited Russian-held Alaska, and meandered down the continental coastline to Spanish-owned California. On board was Adelbert von Chamisso, a French-born, German aristocrat whose interests and accomplishments included writing poetry and prose, a career as a Prussian Army officer, and the diligent study of botany while in Berlin with the Prussian military. After his discharge from the army in 1808, Chamisso wrote and published the prose novella Peter Schlemihi in 1813, about a man who sold his shadow. In 1815, he received an appointment as a botanist on the Rurik, fitted out at the expense of Russian Count Rumyantsev for a scientific journey around the world.
In California, Chamisso named the golden-hued, native plant Eschsholzia californica in honor of the ships’ surgeon and entomologist J. F. Eschshcoltz, inadvertently leaving out the “t” in the surgeon’s name.
Nowadays the California poppy’s more popular name is the “flame flower,” or copa de oro (cup of gold). Brilliant in the sunshine, the flower’s four silky-textured petals range in color from deep yellow to vibrant orange, and close at night or in cold, windy weather. The Native Americans in California prized the poppy as a source of food and for its mild sedative properties, and used its pollen as a cosmetic.
In the nineteenth century, seeds of this plant were introduced into English gardens, where they are grown as annuals, and seed catalogues now offer many different colors. The plant grows wild from southern Washington through Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, northwest Baja California, and Sonora in Mexico. It is a perennial in the mild parts of its native range and an annual in colder climates. The California poppy is drought-resistant, self seeding, and easy to grow in home gardens, where it is widely used as an ornamental. But they are to be enjoyed where they grow: if picked for a wildflower bouquet, the petals almost immediately fall off.
Chosen as the state flower in 1890 by the California State Floral Society, the selection was made official by the state legislature in 1903. (Photo by Ed Aust)