Carolyn Singer: A poppy for pollinators |

Carolyn Singer: A poppy for pollinators

Carolyn Singer
Carolyn Singer irrigated the first Matilija poppy she planted, but only once. Years later the plant now boasts large stands.
Photo by Carolyn Singer

In late May and most of June, depending on the elevation, fried egg plant (also known as Matilija poppy, and, botanically, Romneya coulteri) opens it glorious white blossoms. I don’t know of another flower that can provide for so many of our precious pollinators in a single blossom.

This is a distraction for me, as I too am drawn to the flowers and then find myself enraptured by the bees. Native bees, from the tiniest to the large black bumble bees, join in the satisfying foraging with the honeybees. The activity is mesmerizing.

You may have seen this southern California native only from a distance, perhaps when driving along Sierra College Drive in Grass Valley. From an even greater distance, a glowing stand is visible as you head west on I-80 and approach the foothills just east of Auburn.

I once even caught a glimpse of some bright white Romneya along Auburn-Folsom Road, in the unlikely exposure of a north slope in the canyon.

It seems that once this poppy can establish a root, it spreads unrestrained in the rocky clay soil of our Sierra foothills, especially on a sunny site.

Look for plants at the September plant sale of the local Redbud chapter of California Native Plant Society. Fall is a good time to plant. Or if you know someone fortunate to have established Matilija poppies, and willing to share, make plans to dig some roots in January or February. Roots are actually underground stems and spread laterally.

Planning for new planting

Once plants begin to show above ground in late winter, dig carefully around a plant and follow the root from which it grows. Remove at least a 12-inch length of the root to plant in your own landscape. You will need sharp loppers to cut the root. Cover the “parent” root with soil.

With planting your new start, native soil needs little or no improvement, although the addition of natural phosphorus will stimulate root growth. Raw rock phosphorus or colloidal phosphate is your best amendment for this. Dig it into the soil to a depth of 12 inches, and as broad an area as you are willing to work.

Remember, when you tire of digging in our heavy soil, that you can always come back when the ground has softened from winter rains and increase the area where natural phosphorus is added.

Playing with poppies

Because so many of my edibles need pollinators to visit the flowers, I have often wondered if the Matilija poppies might be a distraction. However, judging from the fruit on the tomatoes, eggplants and peppers right now, I should not be concerned.

I irrigated the first poppy I planted, but only once. During the years that followed, this start became a huge stand. By the time we experienced the recent drought, the poppies were well established. I did not give them any irrigation, and the dry winters did not damage this beautiful native.

While the bright white of the large flowers is striking when the poppies establish as they have in my garden, a single flower is dynamic too. Sometimes I bring one inside and float it in a cut-glass dish. The crinkly crepe-paper like petals last for days.

Each winter I cut the flowering stalks back to the ground. While this is not done, of course, where the poppy grows natively, I prefer the more upright stalks that follow this annual maintenance.

Gardens & art on display

The month of June is a strong month for non-native perennials too. From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today there is a flower show at the Train Depot in Colfax. There is no charge for this educational display. The location is in the Colfax area Heritage Museum, 99 Rail Street.

Gardens and art are highlighted today with the annual Colfax Garden Club Garden & Art Tour from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Tickets ($20) for this event may be purchased in Grass Valley at Weiss Nursery or A to Z Hardware before you head to Colfax, or at the Flower Show in the Train Depot.

Three of the Colfax gardens are within walking distance of each other, and very close to the Flower Show. An organic farm (where you may purchase fresh produce) is a short drive from town. You should still be able to hear the train whistle if you are in any of the gardens when the train rolls through Colfax midday.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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