The Biogeography of California Poppy

by Jonathon Burt, student in Geography 316

Thank you for visiting our site. This web pages was written by a student in Geography 316: Biogeography and edited by the instructor, Barbara Holzman, PhD.  All photos and maps are posted with specific copyright permission for the express use of education on these web pages. The students have tried to be as accurate as possible with the information provided and sources and references are cited at the end of each page.

Species Name: Eschscholzia Californica
Kingdom: Plantae       
Subkingdom:  Tracheobionta

Class: Magnoliopsida
Subclass: Magnoliidae
Order: Papaverales
Family: Papaveraceae
Genus: Eschscholzia
Species: Eschscholzia Californica

Copyright Bob Rutledge, 2002.


Description of Species:

When Russian ships were sailing off the California coast in the 1800's they marveled at the golden hillsides that they saw.  The reason they were golden was because they were covered with California poppies. The flower of the California poppy can be 2.5cm to 5cm in width.  The flower has four petals which are arranged in a fan shape.  They are usually orange in color but can sometimes be yellow.  They are rarely ever white or cream in color.  The flowers come up singly from a long stalk.  The plant is blue-green in color and can grow from 20cm to 60cm in height with the leaves that are 2cm to 6cm in length.  It's seeds are 3cm to 10cm in length and are round or elliptic in shape with a brown or black coloring.  It can be an annual or perennial plant and flowers from February through September.  "In Southern California and Baja the annual form is dominant" (Smith, 1902).  The flowers of this plant are "responsive to sunlight, flowers close at night and cloudy days" (Spellenberg,1979).

Copyright Bob Rutledge, 2002.

Natural History:
    The California poppy can grow in grassy, open areas.  It may also grow in, "sandy places, rocky areas, along roadsides and embankments or invading areas that have been burnt" (Smith, 1902).  They can grow in elevations from sea level up to 2,000m.  They range from Southern California, and are extremely common in the Mojave desert, to Southern Washington, Nevada, New Mexico, and Northwest Baja.
     The California poppy is a flower that uses insects as a means of pollinating them.  The "fragrance attracts many beetles which serve as pollinators" (Spellenberg, 1979).  Indians also used to use this plant for medicinal purposes.  "The Indians ate the herbage, either boiling or roasting it and then putting it in water.  It makes a drug like morphine and was used for headache and insomnia.  The Spanish name is 'copa de oro', cup of gold" (Lloyd, 1973).


Copyright Bob Rutledge, 2002.

    The poppy is considered a very archaic plant and the ancestry of it is not totally known.  They are generally regarded as belonging to the subclass Magnoliidae but this seems to be speculation.  Cronquist(1968) refers both Aristolochiales and Papaverales which is the poppy family as belonging to  the subclass Magnoliidae.  He also says that, "these orders are short evolutionary side-branches which have not given rise to other large groups."  After which he states,  "In formal classification, they must either be treated as distinct subclasses, or included in the Magnoliidae.  On formal morphology they are admittedly anomalous in the Magnoliidae" (Cronquist, 1968).
      Takhtajan (1997) says the subclass Magnoliidae, includes a "number of relatively very archaic orders and families of flowering plants.  All of them are extremely heterobathmic, that is, they have a very disharmonious combination of both primitive and derived characters."  He then talks about how the magnoliid families evolvevd in various direction, but they most likely all evolved from a common ancestor but the relationships between the families is not yet understood.  Takhtajan believes that the magnoliids today may only be remnants of a large ancient group of flowering plants and becasue of this the subclass Magnoliidae is a collection of "living fossils."
     However Takhtajan (1997) notes that the Papaverales, the poppy family are," close to Ranunculales and Berberidales (especially to Hydrasidaeae and Podophyllaceae) and Glaucidiales and share a common origin with them" (Takhtajan, 1997).

  Maddison, D.R., et al.2001.

       The California poppy is an Angiosperm, which are flowering plants.  It then branches off into the Euangiosperms and then into the Eudicots.  From there it goes into the Ranunculales and finally into Papaveraceae, which is the poppy family.
    The poppy family, Papaverales is a small one with around 23 genera and about 250 species in it.  They are primarily distributed in the northern temperate hemisphere but,  some can be found in Southern Africa as well as South America (Smith,1902).  The genus Eschscholzia contains about ten species which are restricted to Western North America, and centered in California (Smith, 1902).  They are primarily plants that grow in dry sandy and stony regions, grassy places, deserts and semi-deserts.  The species Eschscholzia Californica grows in Southern California and is common in the desert area, especially the Mojave desert.  It can also be found growing up the coast up through Oregon and up to Southern Washington.  They do well in dry areas such as Nevada, New Mexico and the Northwestern portion of Baja, Mexico.  


Copyright Bob Rutledge, 2002.

Map of Distribution:

Blue indicates that there is a specimen from this county in a participating herbarium. Specimens have the highest reliability of identification.
Light Blue indicates a documented observation that is vouchered or confirmed by an expert
Copyright 2000 by Curtis Clark.

  Other interesting issues:
    The genus is named after Dr. J. F. Eschscholz (1793-1831) who was a surgeon and naturalist on the Russian expeditions to the Pacific Coast of North America in 1816 and 1824 (Smith, 1902).  The California the California poppy is the state flower to California.  It is not a threatened or endangered plant but it is illegal to pick California poppies from the wild, however you can buy the seeds and plant them. 

CalFlora: Information on California plants for education, research
     and conservation. [web application]. 2000.
     Berkeley, California: The CalFlora Database [a non-profit organization].

Clark, Curtis 2000.  The Genus Eschscholzia California Poppies and Their Relatives.  Available:

Cronquist, Arthur 1968.  The Evolution and Classification of Flowering Plants.  Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

Hickman, James C. 1993.  The Jepson Manual, Higher plants of California.  Los Angeles, Ca.  University of California Press.

Lloyd, Francise 1973.  An Introduction to 81 California Wildflowers, Flowers of the Foothills.  Truckee, Ca.  Tulip Press.

Maddison, D.R., W.P. Maddison, K.-S. Schulz, T. Wheeler, and J. Frumkin. 2001. The Tree of Life Web Project. Internet address:

Rutledge, Bob 2002.  California Desert Wildflowers Photo Page.  Available:

Smith, Emory Evans 1902.  The Golden Poppy.  Palo Alto, Ca. Murdock Press.

Spellenberg, Richard 1979.  The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers.  New York, NY.  A Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Takhtajan, Armen 1997.  Diversity and Classification of Flowering Plants.  Columbia University Press, New York.  

USDA, NRCS. 2002. The PLANTS Database, Version 3.5 ( National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.   

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