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Another lode of garden gold

Times Staff Writer

EVERY June, California gold turns to California brown. The fluttering orange petals of the state flower drop, the leaves turn brown, the stems black. What weeks ago were thrilling stands of California poppies are on their way to becoming tinderboxes.

You could do what the fire crews do, which is weed whack. Or you could do what the dedicated poppy gardener does: strategically prune to harvest seed and thin out deadwood. Within this tinder lie secrets.

And more poppies.

Poppies look so lacy, they flutter so fetchingly, they seem as ephemeral as spring. Little about their appearance hints at their sturdiness, or that there might be enough plant to prune. Yet, provided that poppies have enjoyed the same kind of life cycle that they do in the wild, these “annuals” have enough oomph to live for two, even three years.

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Their life starts in the fall. Seeds sown or spilled from other flowers the previous autumn will have put on just enough growth in October and November to send down deep tap roots -- up to a foot, according to James Curtis Clark, the state’s foremost poppy authority and a professor of biological sciences at Cal Poly Pomona.

Rooted by winter, the poppies begin to produce their signature lacy blue-green foliage only after rain. By March, the first buds shoot up from the green frill and the blushing succession begins. By summer solstice, the show’s over -- unless you cut them back.

The first step is to collect seed. Ripeness is vital. While on the outside, the stem and leaves might look silver and dying, the pods might still be ripening. All a poppy needs to photosynthesize and to create enough nutrients for the seeds, says Clark, is the chlorophyll in the pod casing.

He advises waiting until plump green pods begin to collapse so the casing looks and feels distinctly ribbed. Once they pass a visual and touch test, sacrifice a few pods by splitting them to check the seeds inside. If they are still green and wet inside, they are premature and will not germinate. Viable seeds will be black.

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The other option is to wait to harvest the seeds until the pod turns the color of ripe wheat. This is foolproof for ripeness but offers a fresh pitfall. By this stage, poppy pods are ready to explode in a breeze, and a mere touch can send seed scattering beyond the reach of fumbling fingers.

Clark picks his pods green but ribbed, tosses them in a bag and lets the final browning occur there. This carries the advantage that when the ripe pod does burst, the contents are caught.

Chasing poppy seeds outside of a bag is a fool’s game. A single 3-inch pod might contain 70 seeds, a single plant more than 400. If you want additional poppies where the previous ones grew, by all means harvest the pods brown and allow them to burst, or leave the plants to explode by themselves.

One morning the pod might be drying nicely; by that afternoon its crescent shape has changed. There has been a jail break. The casing has split in two, standing open on the stem like a taunting joker’s cap while the seeds have escaped.

Now the work begins. The chore in editing a poppy garden lies in dispensing with the drying stems and so much shriveled foliage that it looks as if a passing vandal has shredded cardboard over the flowers. By this time, the stems are turning a sooty color. This is the work of an ambient fungus called Alternaria, one of nature’s undertakers, always on hand and dressed in black to begin degrading of dead vegetation.

Alternaria begins its work when a plant is not quite dead. Even the blackest stems are capable of sending out a fresh green shoot in this bittersweet interval. Clip them anyway; there’s a reason Death carries a sickle. That darkening stem is on its way out.

Soon the juices, carrying water up to the leaves and nutrients down, will dry up as the stem’s cell structure breaks down and the stems hollow out to kindling state.

TO make the cut, gather the drying foliage in a bunch and prune as low to the base as you can while respecting the prospect for regeneration. Cutting 3 inches above the base should be safe.

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There, if the poppy is well established, might lie a bright cluster of new leaves. Pruning across a poppy bed, you should find enough of these to provide a dapper little garden to rebloom throughout the summer.

Where you will stop finding the clusters is in plants grown in mixed shade. They will be leggy. All their energy will have been expended in a search for sun, and these poppies will be doing well to have set seed. They will not regenerate.

You don’t have to clear all the old growth to be finished. You know that you’re done when you’ve tricked the eye away from the stubble to the new blossoms, fluttering brightly once again.

This second flush will be smaller, and, says Clark, the flowers paler, more yellow than gold.

“If you brought someone back between blooms, they might think it was a different flower,” he says.

It will be a new garden in other ways too. Even the sounds change. Lizards, which only weeks ago slipped silently through supple growth, now make crunching sounds.

Plants interspersed in the poppy gardens regain stature subsumed in all that spring frill. The agave again stands proud, yarrow spreads and luxuriates, artemisia expands.

The question then becomes: To water or not to water? My instinct is to give the bed light weekly showers, as much to clear car exhaust from the plants as to nourish them.

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The seeds have been unperturbed by unseasonal water. Clark explains that somehow California poppy seeds are programmed to wait for cooler temperatures, shorter days and gathering autumnal moisture before they germinate.

If the result of trimming is too much stubble, too many rough brown spaces for your taste, by all means pull the plant instead of pruning. Whatever seeds fall in the clearing will thank you for an opportunity to land in slightly undisturbed soil.

However, try to resist planting in midsummer. Places where poppies thrived in spring are no place for juvenile plants in summer. It’s too hot.

Try filling the space with a birdbath or sundial, or wait until the autumn crop of new poppies from split seeds crests the soil line.

At that point, you can cut out the repeat bloomers. Or if you leave them, for the next season or even for another full year or two, these lacy soldiers will regenerate again.

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Emily Green can be reached at home@latimes.com.


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