In Praise of the California Poppy
When the French-born explorer Adelbert von Chamisso sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1816, he became mesmerized by hillsides of pure gold. He would give the four-petaled wildflower the name Eschscholzia californica, named for his friend Johann Friedrich Eschcholtz. (Johann would then turn around and name a lupine for Chamisso, Lupinus chamissonis. Apparently, there’s a lot of nepotism in the flower naming world, and I’m not jealous at all.)
California poppies, which were declared the state flower in 1903, truly are a marvel. Like many humans I know, they thrive in difficult conditions. Sandy soil disturbed by tractors, footprints, and drought? Bring it, these feisty little flames holler from the mountains and deserts each spring. They’ve been compared to cups of gold, sunlight, fire, and just about every other metaphor for warmth you can imagine.
Several Aprils ago, when I landed at LAX to visit my childhood home and relatives, I was taken mostly by the poppies’ simplicity in contrast with the complex landscapes, people, and challenges of my home state. While these pure little blossoms trigger memories that aren’t so simple, they’ve always comforted me. Here’s my letter, in pantoum form, to the California poppy.
Pantoum for the California Poppy
You’re too pure for metaphor,
lighting the runway as I descend
into the cracked earth of my childhood
when cups of sun or gold
lit my runaway mind descending
down hillsides of Alone.
You’re less than cups of sun and gold,
gloriously less than greenlace fingers waving
down the hillside. You’re never alone
in your love of spinning barely rain
to glorious, green-laced figures waving
in orange cellulose, softer than skin.
You, love, spin the bare rain
into a specimen I split in biology class,
orange cellulose soft on my skin
as I dreamed of escaping into chloroplasts.
The specimen I split in biology class,
the one of you I landed on a glass slide,
is now a dream of escaped chloroplasts
still energizing the atmosphere
where I land and touch the glass, slide
among your fluttering corollas.
The energy in the atmosphere
is too searing to be matched with fire.
Among your fluttering corollas
I visit the cracked earth of my childhood,
too searing to be matched with fire,
too perilous for metaphor.
Write a poem to your state flower and share it with us below! (Want to write it pantoum form? Learn how to write a pantoum in Tania’s book How to Write a Form Poem: A Guided Tour to 10 Fabulous Forms.)
Photo by micheile dot com on Unsplash. Post by Tania Runyan.
“Runyan is as kind as she is funny, and she excels at self-deprecating humor, the best kind.”
—Glynn Young, author and reviewer
- Flowers of California: California Poppy - December 8, 2022
- Flowers of California: Lily of the Nile - October 13, 2022
- Flowers of California: Crape Myrtle - October 5, 2022
Megan Willome says
As a Californian, I’m betting you know Dana Gioia’s poem “California Hills in August.” It’s where I first learned about the California poppy. Thanks for enriching my floral knowledge base!
I don’t think I can write another bluebonnet poem, after my “Still,” which was in The Joy of Poetry. But here’s my go at California’s flower, somewhat modeled on Vachel Lindsay’s “The Dandelion.”
O native, happy poppy!
Golden-orange and bright
Queen of California
You close only at night
I spy you on the road signs
and all the Scenic Routes
Your hippy petals dancing
(hey, what’s all that about?)
You thrive in wet, you thrive in drought,
You thrive despite our feet
We cannot kill your wanton roots
You thrive without conceit
Tania Runyan says
I love this, Megan! Bravo to your wonderful rhythm and rhyme! I love the reference to the poppy on the Scenic Route signs!