White Poppies

RR Edwards

 

Regular California Poppies

Regular California Poppies

Regular California Poppies

Regular California Poppies

The obsession started the day I noticed an unusual patch of white-petaled flowers. They were among an irregular sea of bright orange California poppies—the only surviving descendants of a package of mixed, native wild-flowers that I’d sown a few years earlier.  There they were, White California poppies!

 

White Poppies

White Poppies

I’ve always loved our state flower, whose beacon of orange can be seen everywhere this time of year. In some respects, it grows like a weed—appears randomly, in small isolated patches, or covering whole fields. It spreads at will, thrives in most types of soil and, once the spring rains germinate its seeds, will continue to bloom through the dry months of early summer. But all this outward heartiness belies the sensitive side of this flower. You can look, but you cannot touch! Once established, it doesn’t like being jostled and will wilt and die at the drop-of-a-hat. As the state flower, they’re protected—you’re not allowed to pick them. But anyone who’s ignored, or been unaware of this law, is soon holding a drooping blob of orange and green, and that usually dissuades any future attempts at gathering. Though I’ve always believed this plant to be an annual (dying out completely, after dropping its seeds in the summer), I was surprised that a number of our potted poppy plants survived last winter, and went on to flower this spring. Who Knew?

 

A More Delicate Poppy

A More Delicate Poppy

I had never seen, or heard of a white California poppy. The only response my casual inquiries drew was, “Really?” Eventually, someone told me that it was a rare, but not unheard of genetic mutation that, over time, reverted back to brilliant orange in successive generations. That’s why you don’t see ever-spreading patches of white poppies. I can’t attest to the accuracy of this premise, but it made sense to me. I guess I could have gone on-line and researched the topic, but it made little difference to what had become my mission — to create a permanent strain of white California poppies.

I assumed that if I wanted to reinforce the mutation, I needed to find it in another, “unrelated” patch of white poppies. And so, during the travels of my daily life, I scanned my surroundings in search of other genetic outcasts. I finally found what I was looking for in an area I’d passed countless times—an embankment along a nearby freeway on-ramp. Now, I had to watch and wait for the white poppy petals to fall away, and the seed pods to ripen and dry. This was the same routine I was going through, in front of my home—anxiously waiting for the seed pods to dry, and collecting them before they burst and scattered their tiny seeds.

 

The Average Seed Pod

The Average Seed Pod

The average seed pod is about 3” long, about 1/8” in diameter, (though that can vary a lot) and tapers to a point at both ends. Its trick in spreading its seed is not unique, but it is unusual. When the seeds ripen, (they’re the size of large grains of sand) and the pods dry, the pod splits in half as if it were spring-loaded, and flings the seeds as far as several feet. The difficulty in gathering seeds is waiting long enough to be sure the seeds are mature, but picking the pods before they “explode.”

 

Nearly Mature

Nearly Mature on Scraggly Plants

When this adventure started, several years ago, I was able to collect several hundred seeds from my yard, but only a few dozen from the on-ramp location. (The difference, in part, was simply access.) A problem with the seed I collected was that I couldn’t ensure that all of them came from white-petaled plants. By the time I came up with my grand plan, the seed pods were already developing and had long since lost their petals, so there wasn’t a clear division of plants by color. Unavoidably, some of the seeds I gathered came from orange poppies.

Sprung and Unsprung

Sprung and Unsprung

That was a few years ago and it wasn’t until last year, after moving to Two Rock, that I had a chance to put my plan to work. I placed seeds in 6” pots, separating them into groups of “home” and “on-ramp” poppies. (I wanted to be sure that I could pollinate one group with the other.) When the plants started to bloom, I found that about half of them were white and the others were orange. I pinched off as many of the “undesirable” blooms as I could, and used a Q-tip to transfer pollen from one group of white flowers to the other. By this point I was second-guessing myself about my “scientific protocol” but it was, what it was.

On top of that we had to leave for about 10 days to attend a family memorial back east. I arranged for the neighbor’s son, (who we’d hired to feed the cats in our absence) to pick off the orange blossoms when they appeared. I explained to him the reason for the task, but perhaps it was all a little too esoteric for a 14 year-old boy to appreciate, because upon our return, I was greeted by a speckled patch of orange and white poppies. At this point, the experiment was out of control—the orange and white flowers had engaged in unbridled relations, and there was no telling what the color of their offspring would be. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! That’s why they call them wildflowers.) I decided to make the best of it, and continued to remove the undesirables. When the pods were ready, I harvested those seeds where I felt confidant of white-petaled-parentage, and allowed the rest to go on about their natural business, spreading their seeds. But I vowed to do better next year.

As I mentioned before, I was surprised that a number of last year’s plants made it through the winter, and they became part of what turned out to be a sizable patch of new poppies that came up this spring. Rather than plant any of the seeds I had gathered from previous seasons, I decided to work with what nature had delivered. What I hadn’t expected, and was pleased to see, was that most of the new flowers were white. And so I began, again, pinching off the orange blossoms and, when possible, removing the entire plant that was producing them.

Bounty

Bounty

Well, the last of the poppies are now drying up. (Due to our unusual weather, it was an early poppy season.) And I’m happy to report that I’ve collected an impressive quantity of seeds—and there’s more to come. Just how many seeds is hard to say. By weight, it’s a little over an ounce and a half. That may not sound like much, but there are thousands of them. But when I started this whole thing a number of years ago, I had no idea how changed my life would be.

So many tiny seeds!

So many tiny seeds!

The love of a wonderful woman and an opportunity to create something special together, are calling me and my white poppies to lands in the east. I’m not sure how I’ll do with snow in the winter and humid summers, and I’m less sure how my fine petaled friends will do. But, I’m optimistic (and that’s saying a lot, for me) and I think these two California transplants will do fine, just fine.

 

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