22 Jul 2021

A Hint of Orange

Alex Summers

If you’ve been through the Boulder Garden at all this summer then you may have noticed our California Poppies making a splash. You’ll find them in the large, round bed right next to the Western entrance of the Great Glasshouse. Last year, half of this bed had to be thoroughly dug over and, by spring, was left looking rather bare. However, this gave us a great opportunity to create a real spectacle, and the decision was made to create our own mini Welsh superbloom!

Superblooms’ are rare events that happen in California’s deserts and inland valleys, and only occur when the conditions are absolutely perfect- about every 10 years. The summer before the bloom, there must be a drought to exhaust or kill off invasive European grasses so that they don’t compete with the flowers. This then needs to be followed by a wet autumn and consistent, light rainfall throughout winter to help the young plants establish. Too little rain, and the plants will dry out and die. Too much rain will wash all of the seeds and seedlings away.

The last major Superbloom was in 2019 and caused a social media frenzy, with hotlines and websites providing daily updates on the best places to see the wildflowers. Tourists flocked from all over America, shutting down national parks and causing massive traffic jams! The Superbloom could even be seen from space, turning entire hillsides bright orange, yellow, purple and blue. Superblooms in California are usually dominated by the beautiful orange California Poppy, which is the state flower. This is the poppy you’ll see covering our own little ‘hillside’ near the Great Glasshouse.

The Golden Poppy

The California Poppy (Latin name Eschscholzia californica) is a hardy annual that can be grown from seed fairly easily here in the UK. In summer when the poppy blooms, the flowers will only open in bright sunshine. On overcast days the plants keep their petals tightly shut to protect their pollen and keep it dry. It is used by a number of tribes indigenous to California such as the Ohlone and the Cahuilla as a sedative, helping children and babies to sleep. Other tribes use it as a cure for toothache, to dry up a mother’s milk and the Luiseño Indians have even chewed the flowers with gum as a candy.

To create our Superbloom, we purchased a large bag of Eschscholzia californica seed in May and broadcast it over many areas of the Boulder Garden, including the large patch of earth left over from our digging. Then, it was just a case of removing weeds that appeared between the young plants. California poppies are drought tolerant and so will rarely need watering, even when very young. Eschscholzia will self-seed happily year after year, so with any luck we will never be short of these magnificent, cheerful blooms amongst the rocks of the Boulder Garden!

Going to California

The native plants of California are a fascinating group of plants that have all developed amazing ways of dealing with the trials of living in that ecosystem- from fires and drought to coastal spray and sea fog! For more Californian plants, we have an area dedicated to this region of the world in our Great Glasshouse where you can see not just poppies, but also Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.), California Lilacs (Ceanothus spp.) and White Sage (Salvia apiana). If you’re looking for a hit of sunshine in your own garden, windowbox or patio then you can’t do much better than reminding yourself of hot, bright California every time you see Eschscholzia californica bobbing in the breeze.