Matilija poppy: The American flower named for an Irishman

Fiann Ó Nualláin’s horticultural hero for this month is geographically linked to the TV show, The High Chaparral.

I know for many gardeners, being asked about your favourite flower or plant is a bit like being asked which is your favourite child.

In my case, as with many others, that sort of question is downright offensive — it would be preposterous to single out one plant — they are all great.

In truth, when I vault down off my high horse, of course I have favourites. 

Favourites to cook with, favourites for medicinal purposes and favourites whose beauty or performing power just blows me away each year. 

Then every now and then one re-emerges on to the radar that you had forgotten about, that seduces or captivates you all over again. 

This week it’s the Matilija poppy — a stunner from California and Mexico that has a big connection to Ireland and to an Irish horticultural hero. In fact to a few heroes.

This week’s article is a continuation of my look at a different horticultural hero each month and this month it is Thomas Coulter but he is so inextricably linked to the Matilija poppy that we cannot explore one without the other.

The history books record that the plant botanically known as Romneya coulteri was discovered in circa 1832-3 by Dr Thomas Coulter of Ireland (1793-1843), which may have come as a big shock to the native tribes of mexico and California who had being utilising its medicinal values for centuries at that point (more on that later).

The plant is sometimes known as the crepe paper poppy, the fried egg poppy and even the great Californian poppy but I always chose to give it its Matilija name.

 As a kid growing up I loved the western tv show The High Chaparral (yeah the one with Buck, Blue and Manolito) set in the very region this community of desert flora thrives. 

Each week there was interaction with waring Indians, displaced Mexican tribes, the Spanish invaders, the white settlers, the US army and all the history of the time mixed with bar fights, sassy saloon gals, stray cattle and broken ranch fences – what’s not to love?

I always had a regard, rather than a fear of the rogue Indian chief, looking to reclaim his ancestral home or keep his tribal ways alive and that sympatico is why I call it Matilija poppy.

Chief Matilija of the Chumash tribe (who used this plant in their medicine) put up fierce resistance to the influence of the Spaniards and their mission culture which was eradicating Native American culture (including natural medicine and ethnobotany). 

He lends his name to this poppy that is tough, reliant, tolerant of drought and hardship and flowers despite it all.

Just eight years after Chief Matilija fought a major battle with the Spanish, near Mission Buenaventura in 1824, an Irish man travelling through the region gathered some seeds and samples of the Matilija poppy.

Little did Thomas Coulter know that that plant would one day bear his name. Coulter was born in Dundalk in 1793, he had a passion for the natural world and although steered into a career in medical sciences, having qualified in medicine in Dublin, he maintained his interest in botany and even studied the subject for a time in Geneva.

His path crossed with the famous Scottish plant hunter David Douglas (of Douglas fir fame) and the two men struck up a friendship and later a professional relationship that saw Coulter invited to collect samples with Douglas in the Monterey region of California – earning him a reputation at home. 

Before that faithful trip to Monterey, Coulter had endeavoured to go it alone, accepting a position as medical officer for a mining company in Mexico, a place whose botanical wealth he had a strong desire to survey — but the bulk of his time was taken up with surveying and assaying minerals and metals, as well as his contracted medical duties.

He did find some time to chronicle and collect local cacti but a streak of misfortune saw much of the collection stolen (over four separate robberies) and a large portion lost via a shipwreck. He threw the towel in the ring as far as botanising Mexico was concerned, and joined Douglas in California.

The kudos of working with Douglas and his own enthusiasm and knowledge earned him respect in Ireland, Britain and Europe and he contributed many samples to European collections including Romneya coulteri. 

Parting company with Douglas, he spent some time discovering the flora of Arizona and upon learning of the revolution in Mexico, returned there to lend his medical expertise to the sick and wounded.

He continued to amass notes, botanical samples and horticultural connections and by the time he arrived in London in 1834 he came with 50,000 specimens amongst his travel trunks. 

Upon this triumphant return to the old world he was offered a new position, a prestigious one – that of Keeper of the Herbarium in Trinity College, Dublin. 

But tragedy was to befall again — all of his journals and manuscripts disappeared in transit between London and Dublin. Soon he heard of his friend Douglas’ misfortune and untimely death, while plant hunting on the Sandwich Islands, the name given to the Hawaiian Islands by James Cook in 1778.

I wonder if he knew the legend of the plant that would carry his fame today. It is said of the poppy that it represents the broken-hearted — some stories relate to Matilija’s son-in-law’s murder by the Spanish and others to ancient myth of a woman bereaved but defiant and virtuous – the white petals her tears, the stamens her heart of gold. Some myths echo that of the transformation of women in Greek mythology.

Coulter died in 1843 but in 1845, the eminent botanist William Harvey, who had introduced and distributed many of Coulter’s collected plants to botanists across Europe and back into America, was now Keeper of the Herbarium at TCD. He wanted to celebrate his friend and colleague by naming the Matilija in his honour.

Coulter’s name was already on another genus, so Harvey attributed the poppy’s genus as Romneya, in honour of one of Coulter’s friends (the Reverend Thomas Romney Robinson), a noted astronomer of the day and then allocated the species name as coulteri, to honour Coulter. The plant was not introduced to cultivation until 1875 but of that first line, the first flowered in the Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin in 1876. 

Today the plant is a favourite of many gardeners and especially dry gardens and American landscape.

I grew it for a time in a gravel bed, but lost it in that bad winter a few years back. It’s a tricky bugger to cultivate from seed but you’ll find it pot grown in Irish garden centres and at plant fairs every now and then.

There are two prominent varieties Romneya coulteri var. coulteri and R. coulteri var. trichocalyx and a hybrid between the two known as ‘White Cloud’. All of them sucker, the hybrid more prolifically. 

The Chumash Indians prized the plant as treatment for skin and gum problems and also to alleviate stomach upset. 

Tea or tincture is the modern practice with the plant which is not on every herbalist’s radar. The sap makes a potent astringent with good antimicrobial properties and it is worth a place in the treatment of sunburn, heat rash, or mild kitchen burns. 

It probably won’t overtake aloe vera, but some clinical investigations for bacterial gastroenteritis and gum problems might be an idea.

Romneyas are pretty herbaceous perennial that can reach 2m in height. In Ireland they flower a few months later than in California so expect a show from June or July, right the way through to cold frosts in October/November. 

They are a bit cold sensitive rather than frost tender (winter protection such as fleece will get them through and dry mulch will secure). They do not like root disturbance. 

Full sun and fertile, well-drained soil is a must and propagation is by basal cuttings in spring or root cuttings in winter or early spring. You may chance seed at 13°C to 16°C in spring. It suckers— so divisions aplenty if it establishes for you. 

If it does, you too will enjoy its aesthetic and have hats-off moments for Thomas Coulter.

Fiann’s tips

* They say as you sow, so shall you reap - well, get successional sowing this month and reap more.

* Earth up main crop potatoes and late planted seconds and earlies.

* Continue thinning out root crops.

* Carrots and beetroot can be thinned almost straight into a sandwich for lunch, rinse first.

* Summer pruning can commence, note red and white currants, raspberries and gooseberries. Peg down strawberry runners to propagate extra plants

* Pot-grown fruit would benefit from a high potash liquid feed.

* Continue harvesting indoor cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and other fruits to encourage the plants to set even more.

* Similarly, picking peas, bean pods and outdoor fruiting vegetables will encourage continued flowering and thus more fruits later.

* Plant tagetes to effect a trick of olfactory misdirection with not just cabbage-white butterfly, but also carrot root fly and repel many other insect pests as well.


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