9 June 2017

The California Poppy Reserve: A Sea of Orange Happiness

Fifteen miles west of the city of Lancaster, in Los Angeles County, California is Antelope Valley, a dry and somewhat desolate looking place – it is after all the western tip of the Mojave Desert.  Yet depending on the rainfall, between mid-February through mid-May something quite extraordinary happens. This otherwise bleak wilderness springs in to life and Californian poppies bloom in their millions.  The landscape becomes awash with vivid yellows and vibrant oranges. It is a fantastic hidden treasure of California.

The blooming is intense to say the very least: the reserve harbors the most consistent blossoming of California poppies known.  1,781 acres of grassland springs to life, attracting butterflies and a host of other insects.  Trails wind through the reserve so that people can traverse it without disturbing the poppies.  It is forbidden by law to pick the flowers even though their sheer abundance might, ironically, naturally disincline those in awe of nature’s wonders to do so.

The drought in California has meant that the last few years have been a little disappointing in terms of the amount of blooms in the area.  The peak came in 2008 yet it is all down to the vagaries of nature.  Some years there are no blooms at all in springtime.  The poppies will not flower if they have not had enough water, naturally.  Furthermore, they will not ravish the countryside with their resplendence if it is too cold or windy.

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You will see, among these pictures, many of the poppies with their leaves closed.  These are not about to bloom – the poppy has furled them inwards to protect itself from the wind, and they will also close at night.  The poppies can grow up to five feet in height and have four petals on each flower.  After blooming the plant will develop a fruit capsule which eventually splits in two spilling a multitude of tiny black seeds to the earth to await their turn to grow and prosper.

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There are other wildflowers which grow among the poppies within the reserve including the owl's clover, lupine, goldfields, and others.  Visitors need not be wary of these but it is advisable to stay on the paths for reasons other than the delicacy of the flowers.  You don’t want to disturb a rattler.

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The plant was first classified by German botanist Adelbert von Chamisso who was on a scientific expedition on board a Russian ship in 1810, so this beautiful and delicate flower has only been known to Europeans for little over two hundred years.  When our German botanist ‘discovered’ them he would also have witnessed herds of pronghorn (which look like but are not antelopes and which gave the valley its English name) roaming the landscape.  Due to overhunting the pronghorn are long gone but the poppies persist.

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Native Americans had found uses for the plant way before von Chamisso landed on Californian shores.  They had three distinct uses for the plant.  Firstly, its pollen was collected and used as a cosmetic, nature’s ready-made eye shadow.  The seeds, although tiny, were used in cooking for taste.  Its third use was medicinal – when smoked the extract of the plant has a mildly sedative effect – nothing like opium but enough to give a mildly pleasing buzz.

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The golden poppy was made the state flower of California in 1903 after winning a not very hotly disputed contest in 1890 – it won by a landslide. Little wonder, given the dazzling landscapes that the flower proffers on those occasions nature is kind that the Golden State chose this most aureate flower as a fitting symbol.

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