The brilliant-orange California poppy is not just pretty. It is also medicinal, says Fiann Ó Nualláin
I am a fan of the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). It looks brilliant, is no fuss to grow, is drought-tolerant, pest- and disease-free and it’s a medicinal herb par excellence.
analgesic, antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, anxiolytic, bitter, diaphoretic, diuretic, hypnotic, a nervous system relaxant, a sedative and vulnerary, (healing of wounds).
The botanical name is in honour of Dr Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz, a surgeon and naturalist on a Russian expedition to circumnavigate the globe in 1815. Docked for a time in San Francisco, Eschscholtz and fellow team botanist, Adelbert von Chamisso, took to the countryside and found a wonderful, golden-coloured poppy, utilised by the natives as a sedative. The golden poppy would become the official, designated state flower of California, in 1890.
So it is, botanically, a true poppy, a member of the Papaveraceae family and it shares the growth habits and active principles with its cousins. But with one big exception —it is not an opiate. It is not addictive. Quite the reverse: it helps people deal with opioid withdrawal symptoms and PTSD. It is a true narcotic, in that it promotes sleep and has antispasmodic and muscle-relaxant properties.
The aerial parts of the plant have a long history of use in Native American ethnobotany as an anxiolytic and analgesic; utilised to remedy physical and mental stresses and the sundry headaches and muscle tensions that attend anxiety.
Its content of isoquinoline alkaloids, including californidine, eschscholtzine and protopine, exert hypnotic and sedative effects similar to morphine, but without the disorientation or addictive potential of an opiate. It is a remedy for thought-pattern insomnia and also disturbed sleep (which involves physical complications, such as hypnotic jerks, restless leg syndrome, etc). California poppy contains rutin and other flavone glycosides, which reduce inflammation and help tone blood vessels.
Topically, the cooled tea is also used as a compress or rinse to salve wounds and skin complaints. Protopine is known to inhibit histamine H1 receptors and so not only does it have an antihistamine action, in relation to seasonal allergies, but it also slows the inflammation pathways.
Protopine is also a potent inhibitor of both thromboxane synthesis and platelet-activating factor (PAF) — both are pro-inflammatory mediators in the human system. PAF-implicated conditions include acrocyanosis, Raynaud’s syndrome, peripheral vascular disease, cardiovascular disease, erectile dysfunction, atherosclerosis, cerebral atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, senility, cochlear deafness, tinnitus, vertigo, PMS, menopause, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, retinopathy, including glaucoma, depression and stress, and a whole plethora of immune and inflammatory diseases.
How to make a tea and tisane:
The plant stems and flowers yield a mild, bitter tea. The best method is via a standard infusion of 7-10 min, using one teaspoon of the flowering herb per cup of boiling water. Depending on when it is harvested and on the weather, the plant can vary in bitterness. It is generally sweetened to taste.
If you don’t have a dark brown bottle — an up-cycled, cough-syrup bottle works a treat — you can also tape up a mason jar with some masking tape.
Gather the plant, chop it up, and add as much as will fit, with an inch or so to spare, into a bottle or jar, then fill to brim with vodka (in honour of the Russian expedition) or another 80-100 proof distilled grain alcohol of choice.
Next, store the mixture in a cool cupbord for 4-8 weeks. Decant the liquid to a second, dark storage bottle or up-cycled tincture bottle from your local health store. Job done.
Never randomly self-medicate and always seek advice on persistent conditions and longer-term treatments — but
the general recommendation for tea is no more than two or three cups per day for periods of extreme pain/distress. A single cup nightly is good for insomnia and stress-related conditions. The tincture drops are usually taken as 10-20 drops in a morning orange juice, for a few weeks at a time.
While regarded as safe, California poppy may bind with the same receptors as those targeted by monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), altering the impact of those medications.
It can also boost the sedative nature of other pharmacological and herbal sedatives. This is why it is always advised to consult a herbalist, who can take a medical history and check for contraindications.
California poppies tolerate poor to rich soils, but prefer a fast-draining soil in a sunny location.
As a drought-tolerant plant, expect to see much more of them in the years to come and hybrids in all colours.
Like all poppies, they don’t like their roots disturbed, so direct-sow where you want them to grow. Seeds generally germinate in 10-15 days.
They will work in meadow or wildflower patches and the poppy is a bit of a self-seeder so, if it moves, I take it that it has found a better place to grow and reap the rewards of a better harvest from its happier place.
If only we humans were better at repositioning ourselves.
That’s a whole other story.