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