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The Dry Garden: Matilija poppies take the stage, showgirls of Southern California slopes

May 28, 2010 |  9:02 am
Matilija

Two unrelated and equally magical things happen in Southern California in late May and early June. By night, courting mockingbirds sing all night. By day, the Matilija poppies begin their all-too-fleeting bloom. The shame is, while most everyone who sleeps becomes aware of the mockingbird’s song, not everyone with sight will encounter the Matilija, which is, without rival, the biggest, silliest, loveliest and most poignant of California wildflowers.

MatilijaVertical While admitting to some hyperbole in that description, let it be stressed that the part about size is fact, or, at worst, factoid. Place a ruler across the blossom of an established Matilija poppy, and between the fluttering, crepe-like white petals and the central cluster of bright-yellow stamens, the width might reach 12 inches. A more common size is 4 to 6 inches, still showgirl proportions rivaled only by hibiscuses.

If size alone were the consideration, the Matilija would be our state flower. However, it makes sense that back in the 1890s, the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, defeated the Matilija for the honor. The California poppy occurs throughout the state and well into Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico too. Meanwhile, as the Chumash tribal name suggests, the Matilija poppy is native strictly to a small section of Southern and Baja California. To see what an exclusive we have on this magnificent flower, go to the Flora of North America map.

One would think that the Matilija would be treated as a local treasure, but most Southern Californian gardeners seem indifferent. Matilija poppies are so seldom used that one could be forgiven for thinking that they come with some painful downside -- that they sing all night too.

They do, indeed, have quirks, ones that forced the authors of "California Native Plants for the Garden" to observe in an otherwise adoring essay, the “Matilija poppy is both finicky and aggressive.” This is true. If a Matilija poppy doesn’t like where it’s planted, it will promptly wither and die. If it does like the location, then after a modest first season, the Matilija can proceed to colonize a garden. Success can be uneven. Of two Matilija poppies planted in my garden last year, maybe 10 feet from each other, only one lived. The one that croaked was in a slightly hotter spot. Blame terminal wilt -- or maybe dog pee.

Matilija and earthjustice_20100521_1142
Space is crucial for this plant. Botanical descriptions usually classify the Matilija poppy as a “shrublet.” Keep in mind that this diminutive term is routinely used for plants that can run to 7 feet across and reach 6 feet tall. Matilija’s ability to spread through its roots can make it hard to know where one plant ends and the next begins. A report of a volunteer appearing 20 feet away from the mother plant in Joan Citron’s cult book “Selected Plants for Southern California Gardens” sounds like a case of a new seedling appearing rather than a rhizomatic runner, but only the gophers know.

The Matilija’s expansiveness makes it an ideal hillside plant, for erosion control and for how good the plants look in the landscape at middle-to-far distances. Their kooky Dr. Seuss-meets-Blake attitudes benefit from distance. That said, be sure to leave a path for the curious to move closer and inspect stamens that are yellow joy and petals that fill up with sunshine like newly laundered muslin curtains, all held aloft by steel-blue foliage.

It's best to admire Matilija poppies now but plant them in the autumn, just in time to capitalize on winter rains. Give new plants some water -- slow, deep and occasional (not more than weekly) so that the leaves have a smooth, unfazed quality and remain cool to the touch. If you’ve got an established Matilija, November is also the time to cut it back and even divide it up at the roots to create new plants.

If you’re starting from scratch, most good native plant nurseries carry Matilija poppies, including Tree of Life in San Juan Capistrano, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley and, of course, Matilija Nursery in Moorpark.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on low-water gardening appears here every Friday.

Photo credits, from top: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times; Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times; Emily Green

CORRECTED: An earlier version of this post misspelled Seuss as Suess.

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