Coulter’s Matilija Poppy

This week, I started out with the intention of making a watercolour painting of Matilija poppies with a map of Southern California as the background, but when I started thinking about what to include on the map, I got seriously sidetracked. My first thought was to feature Matilija Canyon in the Los Padres National Forest, north of the community of Ojai. The name ‘Matilija’ is thought to commemorate the Chumash Chief Matilija who lived in Ventura County. Matilija Lake and Matilija Creek are located in the same area.

My next thought was to highlight the area where Dr. Thomas Coulter (1793-1843) first came upon the plant that was to bear his name. To my way of thinking, Coulter didn’t really discover the plant, since the Chumash and other indigenous peoples knew of the Matilija poppy and prized the plant for its medicinal qualities and for its beauty. But in 1833, Coulter was the first to collect specimens of the plant, later classified as Romneya coulteri.

After taking his medical degree in Dublin, [Coulter] studied botany in Geneva for seventeen months under the famous Swiss taxonomist Augustin de Candolle. Coulter then went to Mexico in 1824 as physician to a mining company, and spent ten years exploring – visiting California and Arizona – and returning to Ireland with such a huge number of herbarium specimens that he was unable to complete the classification of them all before he died in 1843. It was his successor at Trinity College Dublin, Professor W. H. Harvey [1811-1866], who found and described, among Coulter’s specimens, ‘this fine papaveraceous plant, which I soon ascertained to be distinct from any hitherto recorded from that country . . . closer examination proved it to belong to a new and curious genus.’

–Christian Lamb, From the Ends of the Earth

Because Coulter’s name had already been assigned to another plant (Coulteria tinctoria, now Caesalpinia tinctoria, a member of the pea family), this new genus was named for Coulter’s great friend, Dr. Thomas Romney Robinson, astronomer-in-charge at Armagh Observatory.

Portrait of Dr. Thomas Coulter by courtesy of Dr E. C. Nelson, from A man who can speak of plants (1994).

When Thomas Coulter returned to Europe in 1834, he brought with him his collection of over 50,000 specimens of over 1,500 species as well as botanical manuscripts, journals and other notes for a personal narrative. All of these manuscripts were lost in transport between London and Dublin. Coulter suffered from this loss and from health problems.

In an article entitled “The Perils of Plant Collecting,” A. M. Martin says of Coulter’s death at age 50 that “his health suffered severely in his travels”. In view of some of the other causes of death Martin lists for explorers (Meriwether Lewis, dead at 35: malaria, syphilis, gun shot, suicide; David Douglas dead at 35: rheumatic fever, blindness, gored to death), it seems that Coulter got off lightly.

Coulter travelled from Monterey, California to the Colorado River at its junction with the Gila River, near Yuma, Arizona. Where along this route did he come across the Matilija poppy? Some researchers have suggested that it was along the San Luis Rey River, which empties into the Pacific at what is now Oceanside, California. This seems likely, as Coulter travelled along the river for quite awhile and this area is within the known range of the Matilija Poppy. “The botanical explorations of Thomas Coulter in Mexico and California” by Frederick V. Coville includes a map of Coulter’s route. I found it difficult to correlate this map with present day maps of Southern California, but my best attempt to lay out the route on a map with modern day place names is shown below. Among many curiosities and points of interest in “Coulter’s Map” was the indication of “Rio San Buenaventura” running between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. This is likely the modern day Salinas River, but the legend of the San Buenaventura River is a story in itself (follow this link).

Seeds of Romneya coulteri arrived in the British Isles in 1875. A small plant at the Glasnevin Botanic Garden in Dublin opened one bud in the autumn of 1876. The following year it flowered abundantly after reaching 1.8 metres in height. If any notes were made by the botanists at Glasnevin on their methods of propagation, I would be very interested to read them: the seeds of the Matilija Poppy are notoriously difficult to germinate. In the wild, the seeds generally break dormancy following a fire, and it is thought that it takes heat, smoke or chemicals to germinate the seed. (More about this in my next post).

During the early years of the 20th century, Ojai entrepreneurs dug up Matilija poppies by the thousands and sold them in Los Angeles. Although it can be found in gardens from California to British Columbia and in the British Isles, France and Germany (and probably many other places), this species is slowly declining in Orange and Riverside counties as the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains are being developed.

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6 thoughts on “Coulter’s Matilija Poppy

  1. Pingback: Six on Saturday | the painting gardener

  2. Would you like a decent image of Thomas Coulter – I can send it in colour but need a direct email address? Also, I see you have Robinson with “John” – he was plain Thomas Romney Robinson but somehow, somewhere someone erred and added John.

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  3. Romneya coulteri is indeed superb – it is very wilful, however, and adores growing in the worst possible soil – rubble, gravel and sand; don’t pamper it, it doesn’t like that.
    Thomas Coulter’s life story is told in E. C. Nelson and A. Probert, A man who can speak of plants: Dr Thomas Coulter (1793-1843) of Dundalk in Ireland, Mexico and Alta California (1994). The matilija poppy could not be named “Coulteria” because that name had already been used for a member of the pea family, Coulteria tinctoria (now Caesalpinia tinctoria). The naming of the big-cone pine after Coulter was not the reason.

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    • Thank you for your informed comment. I will edit my post to correct the reason for not being able to use “Coulteria”. I had always heard that Romneya coulteri prefers poor soil; however, we have seen many examples of this beautiful plant thriving in enriched soil here on Vancouver Island.

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