Monday, July 21, 2014

The flower that makes me crave fried eggs

The 4 inch flowers of Romneya
 look like a fried egg
cooked sunny-side up
Believe it or not, I actually had a very difficult time picking a plant to cover this week.  I knew that somewhere in Kew's 300 acres I should be able to find one plant that I find genuinely interesting, but inspiration never struck.  My group spent a couple days working in the Secluded Garden this week, and while we were working I kept running through plants in my mind, nixing some and earmarking others for later.

While I toiled away in mental anguish, visitors kept interrupting my train of thought to ask, "Excuse me please, what is the name of that plant?"  "What is that plant?"  "What do you call that plant?  That one on the other side of the water?"  Each group was asking about the same plant -- a large, shrubby poppy that was covered in white blooms growing just on the other side of the stream (1994-3738, SCON).  Nobody could seem to remember the genus, so every time someone would have to scurry down the embankment, ford the waters, and call back, "Romneya coulteri -- It's a kind of a poppy."

Finally, after four or five times, I thought to myself, "This may be a plant worth writing about."  And I wasn't disappointed.

Back to its roots

Romneya coulteri, or the canyon matilija poppy, is native to southern California.  Its range includes Los Angeles, Riverside, Ontario, and San Diego counties.  R. coulteri is perennial from USDA hardiness zones 7 to 11.  It thrives in chaparral and coastal shrub habitats -- especially in dry washes and canyons where the altitude is less than 1,200 meters (Hickman, 816). 

Seed head of R. coulteri.  The seeds of
this species of poppy actually
have a higher germination rate when
exposed to smoke caused by a fire
The matilija poppy may also be spotted in areas that have been affected by fire.  R. coulteri has adapted to fire damage in two ways.  First, shoots will easily re-sprout from the roots after the plant is burnt to the ground.  Second, exposure to smoke can actually increase seed germination (California, 239). 

This California native was first noted by a European in Baja during the early 1800's.  T. Romney Robinson was an Irish astronomer who had an eye for beauty in the sky and on the ground.  The genus was named Romneya in recognition of his discovery (Hickman, 816).

Today, the habitat of R. coulteri is threatened by urbanization, including new home and shop developments, roadside expansion, and flood control (California, 239). Both Kew's living collection database and the California Native Plant Society note that this is a rare plant in need of conservation.  The notes in Kew's database for both of their specimens of R. coulteri indicate that in 1997 this species was listed as endangered by the IUCN red list.  However, neither the CITES database nor the IUCN red list currently list it as endangered.

It looks like a fried egg

Just like all of our curious visitors, the feature of this plant that really stands out to me are the white and yellow blossoms.  Their 4 inch blooms look just like a fried egg cooked sunny-side up.  This species actually produces the largest flowers out of any of California's native plants.  That is especially compelling when you consider that the state of California is over 400,000 square kilometers and covers twenty-one distinct (and often wildly different) types of landscapes.

R. coulteri in the Papaveraceae section of the
Chelsea Physic Garden.  Notice how much taller
it is than the other poppies in the bed.
R. coulteri in cultivation is really floriferous.  I saw two specimens of the matilija poppy at Kew (2004-2746, PERH) and one at the Chelsea Physic Garden, and they were all totally laden with flowers. You can count on this plant flowering non-stop through the whole summer, from as early as May right up until the end of July.  The foliage is a very attractive soft, silvery blue.  Although the leaves vary in length, the deep lobes and cool color really softens the effect of the sunny blooms.

If you're picturing these flowers held on a plant that resembles other poppies, think again.  This is a big plant -- another common name for R. coulteri is tree poppy.  It isn't uncommon for the matilija poppy to grow upwards of 6 feet (2 meters) tall.  I haven't read anything on this, but I'd be interested to learn whether the plant sets flower buds on old or new growth.  This would dictate how you should prune to maintain size.  If it sets flowers on old growth, then all old stems that have already bloomed should be removed at the end of the growing season.  If it blooms on new wood, then it should be cut back hard to about 6 inches after the danger of frost has passed in the spring.  Or you could embrace this plant at its natural height and site accordingly.

Landscape value

Although the matilija poppy is native
to dry and sunny southern
California, it thrives in more cool,
moist and shady conditions
Although R. coulteri is native to a hot, dry Mediterranean type of climate, the plant is very adaptable in cultivation.  There's a specimen at Kew that is absolutely thriving in afternoon shade and relatively rich soil.  However, the matilija poppy may be more vigorous in environments that are similar to its native habitat, including the Mediterranean and areas in Africa, Australia, and so on.  It has been described as having weedy tendencies in southern California, so gardeners in similar climates have a responsibility to keep an eye on their specimens and report any invasive qualities.

The matilija poppy is at home towards the back of the flower border, where it is less likely to cover up smaller growing companions.  This plant doesn't have a lot of winter interest, so consider siting next to an evergreen, an ornamental grass, or a tree with interesting bark.  I think this plant would be the perfect fit for growing beneath a kitchen window.  The sunny blooms would really brighten the view and give a friendly reminder to enjoy a fried egg sunny-side up once in a while.

 A bit after posting this plant profile, my new friend Ann in Australia sent some helpful information that I wanted to be sure to share with you.  Thanks for sharing Ann!

"I live in the Lower Blue Mountains west of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.  We have very hot, dry but humid summers. (Heat zone 4, cold zone 10). Recently up to 46 C. I planted my Romneya about 10 years ago in my front garden,  in a dry westerly aspect  in full sun, on a slope with good drainage. It is tall (about 2 to 2.5metres high) with lanky canes and flowers on new growth which I cut back in late autumn to about 15cm. It will sucker by sending out underground rhizomes several metres away  and also sets seed once the plant is established. It has beautiful crepe paper thin wrinkled petals of pure white & a large raised centre of golden stamens heavily laden with pollen. The flowers measure roughly 15cm and the foliage is a smooth blue/grey. I don’t fertilise it & it relies solely on natural rainfall. The flowers are a constant delight to the bees and the shrub often “hums” with bee activity. People will often stop and ask me what this beautiful plant is when in flower."

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please feel welcome to leave a comment or send me an email.

To see more photos from this week, be sure to check out the album "The flower that makes me crave fried eggs" on the Plante on Plants Facebook page.  "Likes", shares and comments are appreciated.

Pistil and stamen of Romneya coulteri
This poppy is sure to stand out in any landscape.  Notice how prominent the flowers are surrounded by the other colorful selections in Kew's Duke's Garden.
All photos and videos were taken by Amanda Plante at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew unless otherwise stated in the caption.

  • (1994).  California Native Plant Society's Inventory of Rare and Endangered Vascular Plants of Califoria (5th ed.).  CNPS Special Publication, p. 239
  • Center for the International Trade in Endangered Species database
  • Dave's Garden Plant Files
  • Hickman, J.C.  (1993).  The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California (3rd printing). Berkley, CA: University of California Press, p. 816-817.
  • Kew's Living Collections database
  • Rundel, P.W. & Gustafson, R.  (2005).  California Natural History Guides Introduction to the Plant Life of Southern California: Coast to Foothills. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, p. 101-102
  • The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of threatened species
  • The Plant List website
  • The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew website and staff

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