The Poppies of Santa Cruz

Howdy! I’m leading a backpacking trip in the Porcupine Mountains today through next Wednesday, so I’m away from my computer, obviously. However, I have some great guest posts lined up for you while I’m gone, starting with this one from Kenyon Moon.

I lived for a number of years in California, near the coast in Santa Cruz, doing field trips for schools and, later, organizing a big invasive species/environmental restoration project. While I was there, I chanced upon a rather curious thing about which there is no current answer (or wasn’t the last time I looked a year or two ago).

Come on a walk with me in my old stomping grounds. We will start at Roaring Camp, an old-timey town complete with period buildings, costumes, and a working steam train.

California Poppies (Escholzia californica) can be seen below, growing next to discarded steam train parts. I like the contrast of the vibrant green and orange in contrast with the old discarded (but still sturdy) train parts. These bright orange poppies can be seen all over California in almost every type of soil and region. But these are not the oddity–this picture is here to give contrast. Keep reading for the twist.

poppies and steel

Hi guys, it’s me, Rebecca – here’s another picture that shows the orangey color better. Photo by Cliff Hutson.

Just a short hike up into the hills from Roaring Camp, close enough to still hear the train whistle, is this scene:


I like this picture because the poppies seem so wild, yet so caught–and yet so content. Sitting in the fence, looking over the quarry with the town beyond, they are growing as though there were not a care in the world. There is something curious about the whole thing, and it is beautiful. Despite the yellow color, these, too, are California Poppies.

Here is another picture:


Technically it is a California Poppy, the same as the orange ones we saw a few minutes ago. There are a couple possibilities here–it could be a genetic issue causing the yellow color, or it could be something in the environment. This batch is not the only yellow one, they are scattered broadly across the hills around Santa Cruz. They seem to prefer sandy, open areas, but are not strictly limited to these. They may also occur elsewhere in the state, but I have no concrete knowledge of that. (And no, not any “yellow” poppy counts, I know there are other yellow species! A species is determined by a host of factors that I skipped over here in the interest of time).

This poppy has, under some basic tests, been shown to have a genetic basis for its color rather than a reason such as soil makeup, sun exposure, etc. With the potential of being a subspecies, this has been dubbed the “Sandhills Poppy.”

  • Is it a new species? This is unlikely, notice the mixed colors in the first picture.
  • Or (more likely) a sub-species that could some day become its own species?

With more testing and some careful investigation, we may find out. As to whether or not they will ever break off on their own, only time will tell. Speciation happens, or we would not have the diversity on Earth that we see today. And it happens frequently, all over the globe, but it is not so often that we can watch the process occur right in front of us!

All I can say definitively is that if you visit Santa Cruz someday, take a few miles to enjoy watching the process of speciation in action. :)

Kenyon Moon currently works for a wildlife clinic in Denver, CO, but has been intrigued by the world in all its natural forms for a long time. He grew up in Michigan and still has his extensive middle school leaf collection, boxes of animal track casts and rocks, and sketches of ferns. His parents encouraged him to go so far beyond the requirements of school assignments and scout projects that he could sometimes not find space to store my collections. It paid off, and after graduating from high school in 2001 he went on to earn a degree in Outdoor Education and then worked as a naturalist doing (primarily, but not solely) environmental education in California and Washington. He has also worked on a variety of projects, from a senior thesis studying a newly reopened cave that had been closed to humans for 20+ years to a major invasive species removal and restoration project dreamed up by himself and a few other naturalists in 2008. He is planning to start his own blog sometime soon.

3 thoughts on “The Poppies of Santa Cruz”

    1. You are welcome! Are you from Santa Cruz, or have you visited there to see Roaring Camp? A ranger or docent at Henry Cowell SP may be able to help you if you are a hunter of flowers. If not, I can give you some general guidelines:

      The yellow poppies are within a short walk of the station, but the ones in the picture are on semi-private property. However, they can also be found in Henry Cowell and on the adjacent properties in the Sandhills. Try the area around the observation deck and campground. Lots of trails (think spiderweb of trails) in that area, though the official ones are more or less well-marked; I don’t recommend losing the trail. If you do get off the main trail/lost head downhill and follow Eagle Creek back to the river. (Just stay on A trail, lots of unique plants that grown nowhere else in the world than those sandhills–but that’s for another, more involved post).

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