Wild in the City: California Poppy

When the Gold Rush began in California in 1849, San Francisco was a tiny settlement of approximately 1000 people and gold nuggets could literally be picked up off the ground.

By 1850, just one year later, San Francisco had swelled to a population of 25,000 as gold stricken seekers poured into the bay from as far away as China.

Most of the easily accessible gold had been picked up within a year, from “the gold fields” and by panners in mountain streams.

The impact that the gold rush had on the California Native Americans is well documented. (That’s an awesome link to a great PBS show, btw.)

No group suffered as much from the Gold Rush as California’s Native peoples. Estimates of the number of Native people in the area that is now California, before the arrival of Europeans, range from 310,000 to 705,000. Even before the Gold Rush the population of Native people in California had fallen to 150,000 due to the Mission system and diseases introduced by Spanish and Mexican settlers. The remaining Indian population was decimated during the Gold Rush. By 1870 the number of Native people had plummeted to 31,000 according to the California census.

It’s easy for me to imagine what the Forty-Niners thought of these “indigenous heathens”. Gold right under their feet and too stupid to pick it up!

Fast forward to the present, and it’s easy to cluck our tongues at the foolish greed of the gold diggers. Yet after living in San Francisco for …wait…how long have I lived here? 17 years? Anyway, that long…and I am aware that the spirit that brought the Gold Rush to our city still resides here. San Francisco, especially it’s subculture communities, is full of gold seekers…the sparkle of popularity, spiritual prowess, fame, artistic recognition and glamour. Same thrust, different manifestation.

A couple posts ago, I wrote about my own difficulty in trusting in the simple, but true, spiritual knowing to be found in one’s own heart. Which brings us around to this week’s Foraging Fridays.

Escholscholzia californica…California Poppy

Escholscholzia californica…California Poppy

Our state bloom, the California Poppy. Before I go any further, it must be said…

DO NOT PICK CALIFORNIA POPPIES IN STATE PARKS. As our state flower, poppies are protected and it is illegal to collect them on state property (that includes in front of public schools, courthouses, etc.). The poppies that I am showing you today, I grew in my own container garden. I don’t think it’s illegal to pull up something I planted and grew myself, but it may be. If you never hear from me again, they have hauled me off to jail. Stay tuned for information on how to contribute to my bail fund.

Those beauties you see up there grew so enthusiastically that they eventually became too big for their britches and eclipsed everything else in the garden. At any given time they were being visited by at least 10 bumble bees.

Long after most of their wild friends had met their maker, my poppies kept going strong. So it was bittersweet when I noticed a couple weeks ago that they were past their peak and were on the downhill slope. The green leaves gave way to grey, the flowers traded in their petals for seed pods that look like gnome hats, and the whole plant began to bow, the osteoporosis of the plant world creating prostration.

In the dark of the moon this past week, I took up one of my many roles as gardener, that of the reaper. I cut stems, I saved seed pods (Did you know that the dry pods open with a spiralling Snap! that send the seeds flying to all corners? Neat.) and then I gently dug in around the roots and pulled.

And I struck gold.

The roots hung quivering in the air before me and I was stunned. Boosted to listen to my intuitive glimmerings by my recent Evening Primrose communion, I thought These are magical medicine and I am saving them until I know how to use them!

My ever reliable immediate resource, Le Internets, provided me with my answer. I knew the seeds were probably mildly sedative, but really doubted that the rest of the plant could be used. But those roots! They practically glowed! I searched around, found a few known, trusted and reliable resources, like this one, and oh holy of holy synchronicities…it’s meant to be! (2017 Edit: Now I would never recommend someone use internet research as anything but adjunct to trusted teachers and books. I am good at vetting sources, so I felt safe doing it. At the time I was also very low income and, aside from the library, was reliant on the internet for my research as I couldn't afford books or classes. All this to say, just keep your head about you.)

Guess what a tincture of the whole California poppy plant (especially the roots) is good for? Oh guess…really…I’m so transparent.

Chronic body pain and anxiety. Ta da! I took the seed pods, roots and remaining flowers and tinctured those babies.

Further research reminded me of how the flower essence offers support…from FES

Often times, those who would benefit from taking this remedy are mesmerized by social glamour and fame and become easily immersed in the life of media stars, and many other fleeting fads or causes. Such souls have the wide-eyed expectation that the spiritual gold which they seek can be found somewhere outside themselves. When taking California poppy, the soul can find the true treasure it seeks, the radiant sun force of the awakened human heart.

American herbalists were shown the way by the materia medica of the indigenous uses of this poppy. True folk medicine is that of just folks. A way of knowing and healing that is simple, earthy and heart felt. The treasure is not only under your feet. It’s even closer. It’s that small voice that you probably dismiss. It’s that obvious feeling you have all the time. The one that is mundane and ordinary and totally not glamorous. But it is worth more than gold.

In terms of your own gold rush, just look in meadows, tree wells, road margins, and hillsides…you may not find cold metal nuggets, but there is gold in them there hills…the California Poppy.

And if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Dorothy Gale, 1939.

(2017 Edit: Further experience has shown me that the tincture is best made from the entire plant at the height of full bloom. The medicine I made from these roots was effective, but subtle. For off-the-rails anxiety, the whole plant, tinctured with ethanol, is best. California Poppy is also contraindicated in pregnanc).

The Disclaimer

Think with your stomach! Do not ingest wild plants unless you are sure you have identified them correctly and are willing to take responsibility for using yourself as a guinea pig. It is SO not my responsibility if you eat the wrong thing and get poopy pants, or die. You’re an adult. you can make your own choices.

Have a great weekend!