Large stands of Romneya coulteri, or Matilija poppy, at West Valley College, show their true beauty when students are not actively attending classes. What remains for our landscape plants course during fall semester are its seed pods and withering leaves; a difficult sell when I taut landscape benefits and stunningly large poppies. That dilemma, however, presents an opportunity to discuss a garden's "down time."
There are countless books, magazines, and online imagery of gardens at their peaks, full of flowers, ready for people's Instagram moment. Am I the only one that remembers Kodak Picture Spots? Any-who, for the untrained eye, these gardens appear to be permanently emblazoned with their bold and beautiful displays, when in reality that photo op might only last a few weeks in spring or summer. The rest of the year is certainly not as striking but still has some aesthetic value for avid gardeners and poets.
Matilija poppies fall into this category. Their striking flowers can be on display for the summer but at other times of the year the plant is not so attractive. Designers and clients will need to be okay with their downtime to reap the reward next year. For designers in particular, the challenge is to place them where they can be enjoyed during the summer season but are ignored or recede into the background while other plants are on full display.
R. coulteri is also one to watch as climate change plays out across the state. In Southern California, its native environment is quite limited within dry canyons where its common name was coined. As its popularity has grown, Matilija poppies have spread to garden culture in Southern California, and more recently, to Northern California, including the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Since it readily spreads by rhizome and seed, taking up residency outside of its original location can be expected, particularly as temperatures in Northern California rise. Again, one to watch over time.
West Valley College Campus Location: Romneya coulteri
Cilker Building (west facing)
Long: 122° 0'40.39"W
Botanical Name: Romneya coulteri
Romneya: Honoree, astronomer John Thomas Romney Robinson
Coulteri: Honoree, physician, botanist, and explorer Thomas Coulter
Common Name: Matilija poppy
It is named for Chief Matilija of the Chumash, a tribe that inhabited this area for thousands of years before the arrival of the missionaries.
~ Referenced by the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum
Family Name: Papaveraceae
Origin: Native; coastal Southern California to Baja California
Positioning: Slope/embankment, layering, against wall
Garden Themes: Native/dry, informal, Mediterranean, pollinator, coastal
Uses: Slope stabilizer, border, specimen, birds/bees
Type: Semi-deciduous to deciduous perennial (may be summer deciduous); rhizomatous
Form: Round, upright
Size: 6' to 8' tall and wide
Outstanding Feature(s): Flower
Type: Simple to pinnately compound
Shape: Palmate, pandurate (highly variable)
Margin: Entire to deeply lobed (highly variable)
Flower: Summer. Very large (up to 7") but delicate appearing white blooms with crepe-like petals and brilliant yellow stamens at center. Lightly fragrant, according to Santa Clara County Valley Water.
Fruit: Autumn. Capsule, hairy, gray-green turning light brown
cultural requirements, tolerances & problems
Sunset Zones: 4-12, 14-24; H1
USDA Zones: 6-10
Light: Full sun
WUCOLS SF Bay Area Hydro Zone: Very low
Texture: Sand, loam, rocky, well-drained
Moisture Retention: Allow to completely dry for extended periods
pH: Neutral to highly alkaline
Tolerances: Drought, heat, deer
Problems: May readily reseed; may be short-lived; rhizomes sucker; dislikes transplanting
Insects: Not observed
Disease: Not observed
citations & attributions
Calflora Taxon Report. "Romneya coulteri." Calflora: Berkeley. Accessed on July 20, 2021, from https://www.calflora.org/app/taxon?crn=7160.
Calscape. "Coulter's Matilija Poppy." California Native Plant Society: Sacramento. Accessed on July 20, 2021, from https://calscape.org/Romneya-coulteri-(Coulter's-Matilija-Poppy).
Harris, J.G., Harris, M.W. (2004). Plant Identification Terminology: an illustrated glossary. Payson: Spring Lake Publishing.
Norris Brenzel, K. (Ed.). (2012). The New Sunset Western Garden Book. New York: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.
RHS. "Romneya coulteri." Royal Horticulture Society, London. Accessed on July 20, 2021, from https://www.rhs.org.uk/plants/21715/Romneya-coulteri/Details.
San Francisco Botanical Garden. "Romneya coulteri." Strybing Arboretum: San Francisco. Accessed on July 20, 2021, from https://www.sfbg.org/copy-of-tagetes-lemmonii-july.
Santa Clara Valley Water News. "Romneya coulteri." Santa Clara County Water District: San Jose. Accessed on July 20, 2021, from https://valleywaternews.org/2017/05/23/plant-of-the-month-romneya-coulteri/.
Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. "WUCOLS IV Plant List." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Accessed on June 28, 2021.
All photos by TELCS.