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Golden Poppy: California’s flowering gold

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POSTED April 18, 2010 2:35 a.m.
There’s still plenty of gold in California’s fertile dirt.

It lies dormant most of the year until the warm days of early spring force the natural bonanza to break through the soil and create dazzling clumps of lush, bluish green foliage accented with blooms of gold.

Given its rich and bold look basking in the Golden State’s sun as a precursor to earth’s bounty that will bless California through December, it is no wonder the Golden Poppy is the state flower.

They can be found on the edge of sandy dunes at sea level, throughout the fertile Central Valley, along the edge of the Mojave Desert, and populating the crevices in granite at 6,500 feet in John Muir’s beloved Range of Light - the Sierra.

Being partial to the Golden Poppy as a Californian is not the same as Nevadans partiality to sagebrush or Alabamans love of the camellia. Unlike most state flowers, the foliage of the golden poppy dies away within weeks of blooming while its seeds are scattered to the four winds.

It’s a state flower whose beauty is elusive. It is difficult to take it for granted. Sagebrush survives the blistering high desert heat. Camellias continue to grace gardens with their glossy wax green long after their petals have fallen. The California Golden Poppy adds a rich luster to the countryside each spring and then disappears for another year.

Many of the California Golden Poppies you’ll find blooming these days are on the side of highways. You’ll also see them on spots along Manteca’s thoroughfares as the result of the efforts of Manteca’s grand dame of culture and the arts - the late Clarese Anderson.

Nearly 18 years ago, she led a crusade to get people to turn under weeds in vacant lots and plant wildflowers well in advance of spring.

The first year was a disappointment even for Anderson. The handiwork of dozens of youth and adult volunteers appeared to have been for not as blooms were minimal due to dry conditions.

But by the time the second spring rolled around, it was evident the wild flowers had taken hold. Only development has wiped the palate clean in the spring on what were a patchwork of vacant fields along Main and Yosemite.

Rest assured that Clarese’s efforts newly two decades ago are still being seen around Manteca as the thousands upon thousands of Golden Poppy seeds she planted alongside a small army of volunteers have journeyed blocks - and even miles away - to reproduce their golden grandeur every spring.

You can grow California Golden Poppies in your garden. There is a lady on Fifth Street in Lathrop who has been known to go wild with them, turning her entire front yard into a blaze of gold. Better, at least for me, is a neighbor who has a huge clump in his front yard that brightens up California Avenue every year. Fortunately, there are even a few blooming now in my own yard.

California Golden Poppies are a flower that seems to do better with neglect. As such, they are nature’s annual gift to California.

Nothing is more splendid that driving or bicycling through the rolling Gold Country and to come across several acres of California Golden Poppies accenting wood rail fences.

It is true you can find the California Golden Poppy elsewhere - Oregon, southern Washington, parts of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and even Sonora State and northwest Baja California in Mexico.

 The displays elsewhere are not as dazzling or bold.

Perhaps it has to do with a bias toward California. Or maybe it is the fact you can find them in all sorts of terrain in California from the base of snow covered volcanoes such as Mt. Shasta, the rugged Big Sur coast and even in the Owens Valley gateway to Death Valley.

The California Golden Poppy is a flower that defies convention just like the state it symbolizes.

It goes without saying - with apologizes to Joyce Kilmer - I’ll never read a poem as beautiful as a California Golden Poppy.
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