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  • Writer's pictureDana Mockenhaupt

Plant of the Month: California Poppy

Updated: Jul 31, 2021

Peering off away from the rambunctious sounds of the California cities, the few hillsides left undeveloped in the heart of spring are covered in California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). It is a very prevalent flower that has crept away from its origins of southern California and is now considered an invasive plant in some parts of the world. California poppy became the state flower in 1890 not only because of the plethora of patches of these brightly colored corollas throughout the state, but also the plant is a historical reminder of how this territory came about; gold. The state mineral is gold, and is nicknamed the "Golden State". The petals are a great representation of its history, and along with the blue lupine which also fills the native habitat, and for the University of California Berkeley it was an obvious choice when time came to pick their school colors 1. Historically, the native tribes in the California lands were very fond of this plant, and its medicinal popularity decreased over time, until TV show host Dr. Oz mentioned it as one of his favorite remedies for sleep a few years ago. This caused a massive shortage world-wide to develop, damaging the natural population of these poppies. The numbers are increasing again, and currently there are no deficits.

Because this plant is categorized in the Poppy family (Papaveraceae), this instantly gives a stigma to the plant, even though it is not that similar to the opium poppy. Both plants do contains alkaloids known as isoquinolines. Both plants are indicated for anxiety, insomnia and pain. The difference is in the specific type of alkaloids possessed within these plants. The opium poppy will have the typical names we have heard of before; morphine, codeine, and papaverine. The California poppy doesn't have any of those constituents. Instead it is packed full of its own unique alkaloids, like californidine, allocryptodine, and sanguinarine.

These substances have not shown any signs of addictive quality, thus making a clear distinction between the opium and California poppies 2,3.

There has always been a special place for this plant in my heart. As a child, I remember growing them in every flower bed in our garden. My mom always told me that this was a very sensitive plant and that I should not pick the petals because it will kill the plant instantly. This thought was absurd to me! Why would I want to kill a flower (I was actually very good at that skill, unbeknownst to myself). Later I find out that this is just one of the favorite flowers of my Mom's, a California native.

California poppies make themselves so prevalent due to the high germination rate of the hundreds of seeds that come out of each seed pod. It is common to see this plant growing in the lower elevations and when a more yellow color is present in the petals, it is a symptom of high mineral content in the soil 4. The leaves on the plant are glaucous, deeply divided, and have a blue-green tint to them. The bisexual flower has numerous stamens, and two styles jetting out of the middle of the inflorescence. It is a solitary flower and is held erect by a single stem and reaches about 6 inches into the sky searching for that sunlight. The fruits have a light ring at the base of the long, slender capsules. This poppy prefers to grow as an annual, but in very wet environments, it can survive as a perennial 4.

The Native American tribes within the regions now claimed as California, incorporate this plant into their healing remedies for many different needs. This plant was described by multiple tribes for differing reasons. The flowers were nestled nicely under the pillows of the hyperactive children that just wouldn’t go to sleep. The feeling of anxiety was probably not well established so no uses for that indication were listed. The root would be applied topically to erupting headaches 5, 6. Root medicine was usually mashed and sometimes placed inside the mouth on an achy tooth 1, 5. For the Wintu tribe, this plant was used similarly to a styptic to decrease blood loss via the umbilical cord after a new birth 1, 7. Even though this herb is considered safe except in extremely large doses, the Pomo tribe deemed this the "si'dohe'q'ale" translating to a plant that will slow or stop lactation in mothers7. This was enough to keep women away from this plant throughout their whole pregnancy, and with some of the locals calling it poison, even smelling it could affect the fetus and the maternal parent6, 8. On the contrary, there is recorded use of boiling the leaves and using as a food source 1, 7. Sometimes the women in the Cahuilla tribe would mix the flowers with milkweed, creating a chewing gum-like substance 7. But when this plant, especially the root are taking in larger doses, this can induce emesis and more serious effects as the dose moderately increases 5, 7.

With the long slender spinal cord for a stem, and 4 sectioned petals, like the skull, with branching nerves as leaves, this plant is already telling us what to use it for; the central nervous system. The phytochemicals, the isoquinoline alkaloids, will work on enhancing the GABA pathway, and is thought to work similarly to the benzodiazepine pharmaceuticals on the market 3. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter and works to slow the message relaying around the body. The alkaloid chelerythrine is a protein kinase (PKC) inhibitor. PKC is found in high amounts in the spinal cord, and induces the sensation of pain. This alkaloid within California poppy has the ability to decrease the pain felt systemically by stopping this GABA signaling pathway 12. Within another study, this same isoquinoline alkaloid has some power in modulating morphine dependence. This could really improve the convalescent stage post-surgery to help lessen the probability of an addiction to morphine or other pharmaceutical derivatives 12.

California poppy ethanol extractions were shown to inhibit the degradation of catecholamines, helping prolong the life of some of the excitatory neurotransmitters. It also shows inhibition in the production of other chemical messengers, like adrenaline (epinephrine), dopamine and serotonin. Specifically, the enzyme, dopamine beta hydroxylase, creates norepinephrine from dopamine is inhibited12. All of these pathway interruptions give the plant a mild antidepressant effect, but also exerts sedative/ anxiolytic traits 3,7,9. Its actions are controlled by providing the right dosing schematic 2, 4, 10, 11. For a more anxiolytic effect, a smaller dose is consumed, usually 1-2 ml of tincture per day (1-2 teaspoons per cup for infusion) while if the sedative aspect is desired, a higher amount of plant material is taken, 2-4 ml of tincture, (3-5 teaspoons per cup for infusion) 12. These effects are desired in a myriad of ailments, where a calming, peaceful feeling is needed; menstrual related aches and pains, migraines, anxiety, or for times where sleep is high on the priority list. This usually isn’t potent enough to knock people out, but allows the mind to unwind and relax a little more than normal.

Some caution is advised before readily consuming this plant. First, this is the California state flower, so it is illegal to harvest in that state. Also, the yellow colored petals show signs of high mineral content, and those plants should be avoided due to the possibility of metal toxicity. There are not many clinical trials done in vivo with this herbaceous plant, so most of the speculations made come from in vitro and animal studies. The native people were not fond of giving this plant to pregnant/nursing mothers, but in Western medicine it is said to be safe in pregnancy 3, but in one study, an alkaloid found in the plant, cryptopine showed uterine stimulation in the guinea pigs 13. More research would need to be done to prove a defined effect made from California poppy extractions. In a toxicology study, rats were given lethal doses at 5g/kg 2. That’s a high quantity of plant material to try to ingest in one day. Since this drug works on similar pathways to some common anti-anxiety and anti-depressant pharmaceutical drugs, it is recommended to not combine those together 2, 10. This plant has a low toxicity, and it is said to be safe for children, but still to be used with caution and for short durations. Overall, this is a generally a safe plant; its actions are usually quite mild but still effective for headaches, stomach upset, insomnia, neuralgia, stress and many other conditions as well. If dosing is on the higher end of the spectrum, the sedative effects should deter from operating a vehicle or any other large machinery 4.

California poppy has been a part of the history of the United States and is diffusing into other parts of the world. It was a plant used for a wide array of things by the native populations of California, but now is more of an ornamental than anything. The flower brings sunshine into the hearts of people who meet it, and a calmness in the people who ingest it. This golden goddess needs more scientific exploration to validate its effects, but the traditional uses are prevalent and can be applied to our modern society.


1. Anderson M. Kat. Tending the Wild Native American Knowledge and Management of California's Natural Resources. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2005. Print.

2. Mills Simon, Bone Kerry. The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety. St Louis: Elsevier. 2005. Print.

3. Bone, Kerry. A Clinical Guide to Blending Liquid Herbs. St. Louis: Churchill Livingstone. 2003. Print.

4. Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press. 1993. Print.

5. Chatfield, Kimball. Medicine From the Mountains Medicinal Plants of the Sierra Nevada. South Lake Tahoe: Range if Light Publications. 1997. Print.

6. Moerman, Daniel E. Medicinal Plants of Native America. Vol. 1. University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology Technical Reports, Number 19. 1986. Print.

7. Strike, Sandra. Ethnobotany of the California Indians Volume 2. Aboriginal uses of California's indigenous plants. Champaign: Koeltz Scientific Books. 1994. Print.

8. Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber Press Inc. 1998. Print.

9. Gafner S., Dietz BM, McPhail KL, Scott IM, Glinski JA, McCollom MM, Budzinski JW, Foster BC et. All Alkaloids from Eschscholzia californica and their Capacity to Inhibit Binding of (3)H]8-hydroxy-2-(di-N-propylamino)tetralin ([(3)H]8-OH-DPAT receptors in Vitro". Mar. 2006 69 (3): 432-435. Pub Med. <>

10. Skenderi, Gazmend. Herbal Vade Mecum, 800 Herbs, Spices, Essential Oils, Lipids etc. Constituents, Properties, Uses, and Caution. Rutherford: Herbacy Press. 2003. Print.

11. Bartram, Thomas. Bartram's Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine the Definitive Guide to the Herbal Treatment of Diseases. London: Robinson Publishing Ltd. 1998. Print.

12. Mills Simon, Bone Kerry. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy Modern Herbal Medicine. Churchill Livingstone. 2000. Print.

13. Blumenthal, Busse, Goldberg, Gruenwald, Hall, Klein, Riggins & Rister. The Complete German Commision E Monographs Therapeutic guide to Herbal Medicine. American Botanical Council. Boston: Integrative Medcine Communications. 1998. Print.

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