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Matilija Poppy

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Romneya coultieri in the author's garden.

By Mary Gutierrez

Like a favorite pair of shoes bought on sale, or a recipe that takes 15 minutes to prepare and has guests raving, people love things that are functional, esthetically pleasing—and easy. You'll want to add Romneya coulteri to your list of favorite things.

Commonly called matilija (ma-tila-huh) poppy, this California native wildflower is perfect for the dry, rocky, sun-baked west- or south-facing territory that is so difficult to make presentable. I first encountered the plant in a parking strip that had been converted to a flowerbed. I knew immediately I had to have it.

The history of Romneya coulteri in cultivation takes us from the chaparral and scrub of southern California to the lush green of Ireland. Dr. Thomas Coulter of Newry, Ireland botanized in California and Mexico in the early 19th century and collected Romneya coulteri in 1833. It was first sold as a garden specimen in 1875, and reportedly bloomed first in "captivity" at the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin in 1876. The genus name, Romneya, is in honor of Irish astronomer Dr. Thomas Romney Robinson who lived and worked in the 1800s and was a friend of Dr. Coulter.

Found wild in southern California and northern Mexico, you can understand why matilija poppy is well adapted to harsh conditions. The handsome bluish-green (glaucous) foliage consists of opposite, deeply lobed leaves. The leaf texture is leathery, as you would expect of a drought-loving plant, but the leaves are not hairy like some other members of the poppy family.

While references classify matilija poppy as a perennial, I've seen it referred to as a subshrub since the base of the plant becomes woody with time. It is also sometimes called tree poppy because of this habit. Last winter my plant was mostly evergreen. Reference books tell me that matilija poppy is deciduous. So perhaps it depends on how cold our winter gets. In any case, most people will want to cut the plant back in fall or winter to refresh the foliage the following year.

The flowers reveal the plant's poppy heritage. The petals (there are six) are like fine white crinkled tissue or crepe paper. A giant cluster of bright yellow stamens in the center of the flower-like the yolk of an egg-give matilija poppy its other common name: fried egg plant. Each flower is about the size of the palm of your hand, at least four inches from edge to edge. I think the flowers resemble Romneya's high-maintenance relative, the Himalayan poppy (Meconopsis) without the fancy color. Matilija poppy isn't as stingy with its flowers, either. My specimen begins to flower in June and the show continues through September.

When siting matilija poppy in the garden, the main considerations are that the location is warm and dry, and that there is plenty of room for it to spread. For it will spread. While I might complain about some plants that begin to elbow their neighbors out of the way after a couple of years, matilija poppy is too attractive to resent for this behavior. So I recommend those spaces where you don't want to do much maintenance and have plenty of room.

The matilija poppy is tall, too. Now in its third year in my garden, the plant and I are about the same height at five and a half feet. (Thankfully, my girth isn't growing as fast as my plant's is!) Reference books will tell you it can grow to eight feet tall.

There's just one trick-and you know there is always a trick-to successfully growing Romneya coulteri: finding a transplant and getting it established. It is documented and I've experienced it firsthand, this plant resents transplanting.

I bought a four-inch pot of matilija poppy several years ago at a local nursery. As I am known to do, I set the potted plant out back, figuring I'd get around to planting it eventually. As days passed and I watered and cared for my new acquisition, it became apparent that my matilija poppy was wasting away. Sadly, this plant ended up on the compost heap.

This is probably the main reason you won't encounter it at nurseries very often and why it is not more widely grown. If I were in the business of selling plants, I would be leery of plants that wasted away in their pots, only to die upon arrival at their intended home.

The next time I found this plant for sale I bought it, took it home, dug a hole and planted it. My new plant malingered for the first season after planting though I tended it diligently (it needs supplemental water the first year). I was rewarded the second summer with a show of those stunning white flowers.

Though it is elegant looking, the matilija poppy is perfectly suited to those neglected, unglamorous locations we all have: Between the alley and the garage, for example, or on the steep slope from the house down to the street. Passers-by will think you're a great gardener, slaving away over that hot, neglected space to grow this beauty. You don't need to tell them that you just put it in the ground and let nature take its course.