California Poppies

Is the Prohibition of Poppy Picking Purely Poppycock?

From Park E-ventures, September 2013

Often when I use my smartphone to look up the subject of some insignificant curiosity, I have this feeling that surely there are no more believers of harmlessly romantic legends in this age of information.

Yet, time and again, I’ve been asked, with a hint of excitement, “Is it true that it’s illegal to pick a California poppy?” I love this question and all the intrigue that it holds.

It is easy to find the basic answer to this question in a simple Internet search. The California poppy was voted to be the floral icon of California in 1903, but what special protection does that afford? Absolutely none.

The plant is named the state flower for its widespread growth and, perhaps coincidentally, for how its gold color matches the state color, nickname, and mineral. This is an honor for sure and represents a triumph for those who love the flower, but in no way does that mean the species is threatened or in need of special protection.

Digging deeper, you will find a more satisfying reasons for the pervasive rumor. This spindly plant prefers to grow in disturbed, sandy sites with great drainage, and therefore is most often found brightening up dreary roadsides, highway medians, and grassy wild areas. The habitats described are quite often on state- or federally-owned property, where all plant material—native or non-native—is protected as the property of the governing body.

This makes the California poppy surprisingly out of reach for many people; you generally cannot just pick up a bouquet of the delicate flowers in the supermarket, and it is rare that they are grown in well-groomed, fertile, irrigated gardens. It is, in the truest sense, a wildflower. 

Therefore, you are welcome to grow poppies in your yard and transplant them, pick them for short-lived bouquets, and otherwise enjoy them freely, but when they are not on your property, they join the common ranks of anything that is not your own property.

I still smile because, even knowing that it is not true, I love the allure of the rumor. There is an element of danger, imagining a bewildered child being handcuffed for the egregious offense of picking a simple flower. There is also an element of pride, in the alleged sacredness of a symbol of the state you love.

So the next time you hear someone say that is illegal to pick a poppy, you can either share this information, or just enjoy a good tale.

By Annette Russell
Seed Collection Ecologist
Marin Headlands Native Plant Nursery

Return to Park E-ventures archive or read more articles about related:

Topics: Plants/fungi




* * *
Very good article thank you...  
Submitted by martin on March 15, 2014 
* * *
If people want to pick California poppies they should be aware the they don't like it. As soon as you tear it from the plant, it starts to die and no amount of water can save. I love poppies, a whole field of them makes me smile. Leave them alone for everyone to enjoy.  
Submitted by Karen and Edward Osgood on August 30, 2013 
* * *
When I was growing up here in the 60's, there were freeway signs by where the poppies grew that threatened a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for picking poppies.  
Submitted by SFOriginal on August 30, 2013 
* * *
There is more to the story of our State flower. Because people have spread seed of the deep orange flowering plant, our pale yellow coastal form has been hybridized and almost lost. Therefore, we should not spread non-local plants around. In fact, this is what the Presidio and GGNRA nurseries are so careful about; they collect seeds and return plants to their exact location of origin. Too bad the photo shows only the deep orange inland poppy and not our pale yellow coastal one. 
Submitted by Isa Christi on August 29, 2013 


Leave a comment

Enter this word:

Browse Park E-ventures by Topic


Browse Park E-ventures by Date