Plant stories: California poppy

The state flower of California is the somewhat prosaic California poppy, the bright orange self-seeding annual that in that part of the world is a true wildflower. However, the story of how the ‘golden poppy’ attained its high status is thanks in large part to the efforts of a self-taught botanist and botanical artist, Sara Lemmon (1836-1923).

Born in Maine, Sara Plummer moved to Santa Barbara in California in 1869 for a better climate for her health, opening a lending library and stationery store in 1871. As well, she founded the Santa Barbara Natural History Society in 1876, the same year she met John Lemmon, who was collecting plants for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and giving lectures. John, who had been a Civil War prisoner, an experience that affected his health for the rest of his life, was also self-taught.

They married in 1880 and spent an extended honeymoon in southern Arizona looking for new plants – it was during this trip that Mt Lemmon in southern Arizona was named in her honour. Read more about her exploration of southern Arizona here.

Later in the 1880s, the couple were living in the Oakland area, near San Francisco and both working for the California State Board of Forestry. Sara delivered a lecture on forest conservation at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, an event that fostered discussion about choosing national and state flowers, leading to the creation of the National Floral Emblem Society.

In 1890 three candidates were put forward to members of the California State Floral Society  – the golden poppy, Romneya coulteri (a shrub with large, silky flowers commonly called Matilija poppy in California), and the Mariposa lily. The golden poppy won by a landslide.

California poppy. Photo: Sandra Simpson

As chairwoman of the California State Committee of the National Floral Emblem Society, Sara had the task of persuading the California Legislature to declare a state flower. Three times a bill was introduced and three times it failed to pass into law. However, on the fourth attempt in 1903 it finally succeeded and was signed into law. Sara was officially rewarded with a gold-mounted eagle’s quill that had been used to sign the bill into law. Read the full story here.

Although Sara was an equal partner in collecting and researching plant specimens, the scientific papers and articles published by John credit “J.G. Lemmon & Wife”. They are both buried in Oakland, near San Francisco, with a poppy engraved on their headstone.

In 1974, April 6 was officially designated as California Poppy Day and in 1996 May 13-18 was named as Poppy Week.