Romneya Coulteri, or Matilija Poppies, Again

Romneya coulteri, which seems to grow extremely well in many normal gardens, shooting its beautiful grey foliage in natural clumps and covering itself with stunning white poppy flowers with handsome yellow centers, refused to grow in the many different places I chose for it. Various people gave me root suckers and I bought very healthy-looking (and expensive) plants, but it would not take off.

–Christian Lamb, From the Ends of the Earth

From the moment I first saw Romneya coulteri, I wanted to have it in my own garden. That was ten years ago. It is an obsession that continues to this day, in spite of many failed attempts and foolish experiments. The thing is, this plant is difficult to propagate, difficult to establish and hard to get hold of in the first place.

I know that Romneya, once established, does well in and around Victoria, B.C. It prospers and grows. I have seen it growing in a number of local gardens, both public and private. There is a garden in Esquimalt where numerous plants have flourished for many years. I make it a point to walk past this house when I know that the plants will be in bloom. Several years ago, Matilija poppies were growing behind the fence on three sides of the yard, but since then the property has changed hands, and the new owners have really cut back on the number of plants. It’s probably a wise decision: Matilija poppies, once well established, can easily take over the whole yard if not kept in check. As I walked by, I wondered if any of the suckers from these plants had been used to start growing new plants somewhere else.

Several houses further along, I spotted a young Matilija poppy plant sporting a single white bloom. It may be a coincidence, but I think the Matilija poppy might be about to start spreading all over Esquimalt.

My own history with the Matilija poppy has grown so complicated that I can’t really remember anymore just how it all went. I was given at least three suckers, all with lots of roots and shoots attached. None of them made it. I purchased a small plant from a garden centre, only to have the “root ball” fall apart in my hands when I tried to put it in the ground. It didn’t make it.

I decided to try growing Romneya from seed. I found them on eBay, on offer by a California grower. Having read about the difficulty of germinating the seed, I decided to use fire to induce the seed to break dormancy. I filled a terra cotta pot with potting soil, planted the seeds on top of the soil, covered that with a layer of vermiculite. Then, I set the pot inside our burning barrel, heaped dry pine needles on top of the pot and set the needles on fire. I replenished the needles once. When the fire burned itself out, I let everything cool. I did not disturb the ash and unburned material, other than to pour water through it into the pot. I set the pot in a sunny, sheltered spot.

Within a month, I had a pot full of tiny, crowded seedlings. The germination rate was very high. I wondered what all the fuss was about: this seemed pretty easy to me. But as the seedlings got big enough to transplant, and as careful as I was not to damage the delicate roots as I transplanted them, by the time another couple of months had gone by, I had only three little plants. One was a bit of a runt, but as you can see from the photo, the other two were perfect little specimens. Alas, by the end of the summer, these three had perished as well, leaving me once again with no Romneyas.

I cajoled my husband into a trip to Salt Spring Island where I purchased two healthy plants, grown from seed obtained from California. They did well in my garden and bloomed the next summer. I purchased another two plants from another garden centre where they’d had good luck with growing the Matilija poppy from seed.

Romneya coulteri, confined to a pot and blooming

Then, we thought that we were about to move, and I dug up my plants and put them into pots, hoping to take them with me to our new location. This may seem very foolish, but I had been assured by a nurseryman that he had left Romneya plants in pots for several years without any problem. For awhile, I thought that I had gotten away with this: all of the plants bloomed that summer in their pots. But, it turned out that we didn’t move. The following winter was bad, with many container grown plants standing in freezing water. Although the Romneya plants were sheltered from the worst of it, they did not survive this assault.

Suckers coming up at the base of a well established Romneya

My latest attempt

At some point, I gave one or two plants to my daughter and she purchased a couple of healthy plants from a nursery as well. She’s had great success with them and now has three mature plants with suckers coming up at their bases. They are in glorious, full bloom right now and have provided photos for this post and to serve as the basis of the paintings I’ve been working on.

She has given me a few of these offshoots and I’ve planted them in my own garden, in spots where they’ve managed to gain a foothold in the past. So, I’m back in the Romneya game again. Of the six starts that I planted, three are looking like they just might make it. Of course, we won’t really know until spring. Wish me luck.

 

Matilija Poppy Country, watercolour & gouache

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14 thoughts on “Romneya Coulteri, or Matilija Poppies, Again

  1. 2014. Loved your article. I too have tried various experiments and failed miserably. Where in Victoria can I purchase a Romneya?

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    • Last year they were available in limited quantities at Brentwood Bay nursery, at Gardenworks on Blenkinsop and at the plant shop attached to the Root Cellar at McKenzie and Blenkinsop. You will probably have to wait until later in the season, and it might be a good idea to inquire by phone. Good luck!

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  2. This is such an amazing plant – we’ve seen it at the UBC Botanical Garden. It was a great idea to set the pot on fire! Great painting!

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    • I’ve enjoyed my visits to the UBC Botanical Garden very much. The tree peony (Paeonia Rockii) near the entrance to the gardens is superb. I was lucky to have a burning barrel, which made it easy to “play with fire”. We have since moved closer in to Victoria, where I am lucky enough to have a few promising young Romneya plants. Of course, they must survive the winter now. 🙂

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  3. One secret is to not disturb the roots when you plant it. Mine have all done well and it’s true that
    once they’re successfully planted, they spread easily.

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  4. That is a wonderful story. I love the part about “it is still spreading”. Having recently moved, I only have the bare beginnings of Romneya plants right now and we’re going to move again soon. They’re still flourishing in my daughter’s garden, though. They flower like mad; and for a long time, too. She uses bark mulch and is pretty conscientious about watering, but who knows for sure? The difficult plants are fascinating. Please do let me know when your Romneya flowers!

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    • I’m in the south of France and bought a small Romneya plant about eight years ago.It flourished and spread but only flowered once and then without much enthusiasm in all this time ,so I thought enough-is-enough and tried to get rid of it and dug it up.Ha Ha it is still spreading but still no flowers.However ,after reading your post my hopes are raised once more .I suppose that is what gardening is about. Thank you for re-igniting my desire to get it flowering

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  5. We used to visit the Ojai Valley in Southern California often, and the Matilija poppy grows abun dantly there as well as a small patch along the coast near Pismo Beach. I fell in love with them too some years ago, but never tried to propagate them, though I painted them a number of times. They are ethereal flowers just dying to be immortalized in paint! I like your rendition very much.

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  6. I love your painting at the top! Beautiful and your story of the romneya. Recently my friend and I were in Victoria and she was taking photos everywhere of the romneya. She has tried to figure out how to grow them, and been told they are quite finicky! I have found a grower out in Langley and we are going to take a day trip out a pick on up, its her birthday gift from me. Cross your fingers, and good luck with yours!
    Col – North Vancouver BC

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    • Thank you so much. If you have found a grower and can get a plant with a good root system, the battle is 90% won. The main thing is good drainage, but don’t be afraid to water it. Wish your friend good luck from me, and I hope she enjoys her Romneya.

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