An Unexpected and (Re)Productive Study of the California Poppy

21 Mar

Sometimes, blown car tires lead to unexpected opportunities. While in California on our way to Monterey, our tire blew out on the freeway and very spectacularly separated itself from the rim. Our oldest son was driving and successfully steered the car to the side of the road, with the help of a kind truck driver, who stopped traffic in the right lane to let us over. While the spare tire was being put on, I noticed a cheery patch of poppies down a small hill, and headed there with my camera, whereupon I had an impromptu lesson in reproduction–of the floral kind.

The Golden State loves golden symbols, so it’s no surprise the California Poppy is the state flower. It’s a favorite of many gardeners, but also grows wild across California and elsewhere; masses of poppies make some Western mountains look as if they have been dusted with orange-yellow confetti. They also grow by the roadside, where I was lucky enough to get to study them for a little while. In that scraggly patch, there were poppies at all stages of development, from buds to full flowers, to seed pods.


The flower buds are encased in a calyx made up of two fused sepals; the papery cap slowly gets pushed off as the four overlapping poppy petals begin to unfurl.

  
Inside the cup-shaped flower itself are the stamens (pollen-tipped male reproductive organs) and the pistil (female organ), waiting for pollinators–usually bees, but also beetles and flies–to help ensure a new generation of Eschscholzia californica. This is the plant’s  very civilized (and somewhat passive) Plan A in terms of reproduction.


But, there’s a Plan B, too–and it’s a bit more lively. Once the poppy’s main flowering cycle comes to an end, the petals start dropping off, revealing an elongated seed pod (fruit) sitting on the disk-like torus. The pod gets longer and bigger, starts drying up in the sun, and finally bursts open, ejecting seeds as far as 6 feet away. This type of seed dispersal has a great name: explosive dehiscence.  Oh, how I wish I could have seen it in action.

  
So, what pollinators cannot achieve, the plant takes care of on its own, spreading its wealth just a bit further one seed pod at a time. Something to admire this April 6, which is California Poppy day.

 

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