Towering White Flowers and a Flashback to the 1970’s

Driving through a neighborhood in the town of Benicia en route to a poetry reading at Roseanne’s European Delights a stand of white flowers at about eight feet tall caught my eye.  “Of course,” I chuckled to myself with greedy horticultural glee, “Matilja Poppies!”  And without further ado, turned around.  On closer inspection, there behind the impressive shrub of rare (not categorized as rare, just rarely seen) giant poppies rested a Volkswagen Van, reminiscent of my hippy days as a youth in the Bay Area.

Naturally compelled to capture the scene with my handy iPhone camera, I also took note of the dilapidated ruins of what once was a charmed garden.  The heavy cement birdbath, planted with one of my favorite succulents, Calandrinia Spectablis, waving her fuscia colored wine cups in the air leaned about as far as it could without toppling.  A whirl of Mexican Sages in a tangled overgrown mass enveloped the slope and all this set against a bluebird sky, would have made Vita Sackville-West (Garden Designer 1892-1962), known for her, “White Garden”, in Sissinghurst, England, stop in her well-heeled British tracks.


Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri)

The flowers can be as large as a saucer and the white petals flutter like a chiffon skirt in the wind on stems reaching upward to 8 feet.  This glorious show piece of a perennial shrub is a California native in the Chaparral and Coastal Sage Scrub plant communities.

Check your local native plant nurseries for availability.


Family:  Papaveraceae

This is the largest of all the Poppies and I’ve read numerous times they establish into steadfast and happy shrubs in the right environment but honestly, I have seen very few of these stunning shrubs over the years.  Each time that I have, they are a sight to behold.  Apparently the flowers bloom in late Spring and early Summer. In the Fall and Winter, as many natives do, they withdraw into a restful state appearing withered and brown.


“Queen of California Flowers”

Mary Elizabeth Parsons, from The Wild Flowers of California, 1897: “The Matilija poppy (pronounced ma-til’li-ha) must be conceded the queen of all our flowers.  It is not a plant for small gardens, but the fitting adornment of a large park, where it can have space and light to rear its imperial steams and shake out its diaphanous flowers.  It is justly far-framed, and by English gardeners, who now grow it successfully, it is regarded a priceless treasure, and people go from many miles around to see when it blooms.  It is to be regretted that our flowers must go abroad to find their warmest admirers.”


“Cultivating the Matilija Poppy”

They prefer gravelly soil with good drainage and full sun.  Be aware they need lots of space because they spread by rhizomes. Plant in Fall or Winter.  Dig the hole so that the plant will sit slightly above the soil line.  Transplant into the hole after the plant and area is thoroughly watered.  Water 1x to 2x a week until the plant is established then only water once a month.

Associated plants range from Mulefat, Baccharis, willows, and Cottonwoods through Ceanothis crassifolius, Quercus berberdofolial (dumosa), Rhus laurina, Rhus ovata, Keckiella antirrhinoides, Diplacus puniceus, Poison Oak, Artemisia californinica, Lotus scoparius, Eriophyllum confertflorum, Eriodictyon crassifolium, Salvia mellifera and Chamise.

One Response to “Towering White Flowers and a Flashback to the 1970’s”

  1. Yana says:

    What an unexpected adventure you’ve described…spectacular photos that challenge the senses, and even cultivation tips !!! Lovely…

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