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Land of the Golden Poppy

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

These words were sung by California’s school children during the 1940s and ’50s as people
celebrated the beauty of these golden flowers that grew wild across the vast unsettled
regions of the state. “Poppies, golden poppies, gleaming in the sun. Closing up at
evening when the day is done. Pride of California, flower of our state. Growing from the
mountains to the Golden Gate.”
Colorful legends have been passed down through the
centuries about these vivid golden petals. Early Native American lore speaks of the “fire
flower’ sent by the Great Spirit to rid the land of frost and famine and bring the warmth
of the sun and a time of plenty. These early peoples used the plant as both a source of
food and also extracted its oil for medicinal use, particularly as a mild painkiller.
During the ranching days of the Californios, the root was used as a toothache remedy and
the leaves boiled with olive oil and mixed with perfume to make a hairdressing. Extract
from this non-addictive strain of poppies was also used for headaches, anxiety and
sleeplessness, as well as a number of other maladies. Early Spanish explorers discovered
California’s vast fields of golden poppies centuries ago, leading them to call this newly
discovered region La Tierra del Fuego — The Land of Fire. In 1903, the golden poppy
(Eschscholtzia californica) was named the California state flower. Today, the golden poppy
still symbolizes the rich bounty of California’s warm, Mediterranean climate and brings
great numbers of tourists to enjoy them. The largest fields grow in the high Mojave Desert
of the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, north of Los Angeles. The flowers grow
best in soil that has been disturbed in some manner (such as fire or animal grazing) and
the pronghorn — which populated the area for decades, perhaps even centuries, followed by
sheep that feasted on the hillsides until the early 1970s — created excellent conditions
for their growth. The California Department of Parks and Recreation now manages these vast
acres of poppies and though they don’t water the drought-tolerant flowers, they do use a
prescribed burn program to decrease the ground cover and allow the native wildflowers to
grow and bloom more profusely. Poppies don’t bloom every year, but when the winter and
spring rains occur at the right times the normally dry slopes of the Antelope Valley spring
to life in rivers of gold. The timing and intensity of the bloom vary from year to year;
you will need to call the park in late February to find out when the bloom is predicted to
be most colorful. We had been waiting for a season of heavy bloom — and the spring of
2005, after torrential winter downpours, was just such a year. We listened to news and
weather reports extolling the grandeur of the blossoms with frustration as the days of
April flew by and family affairs kept us from hitting the road (mid-April is peak bloom
time). Then, during the first week in May — knowing, unfortunately, that we’d missed the
best bloom — we were able to make the trip. We arrived early in the morning, and had the
entire reserve to ourselves. Past its prime or not, we were delighted to find the flowers
were still plentiful and even though the visitor center was closed for the season, the
trails were open. In addition to the 1,745 acres of the reserve, shimmering shades of gold
and purple covered large tracts of adjoining pasturelands, creating an ocean of color. The
wind was still and tiny lizards scurried underfoot as we set out on the four-mile Lightning
Bolt Trail. The scenery was spectacular but the flowers sparse along that route, so we
backtracked and took the lower North and South loops for a total of two miles. The valley
floor, as far as we could see, was blanketed with an absolute smorgasbord of flowers.
Delicate grasses shimmered above the blossoms and large patches of owl’s clover and pygmy
lupine punctuated the sea of golden poppies with soft shades of lavender. It took us hours
to traverse the two miles of trail as we stopped frequently to explore the exquisite
blossoms. As the morning deepened, a few other enthusiasts joined us along the trail; all
agreed that this was a much better time to enjoy the flowers than peak season when the
crowds arrive and parking is difficult (or impossible) to find. With seven miles of trails
throughout the park, we didn’t feel at all crowded and it was nice to see several folks in
wheelchairs making use of the paved trail constructed for that purpose. Our only
disappointment in arriving after peak bloom time was the fact that the visitor center,
staffed by local volunteers who work in the gift shop and lead nature walks, was closed.
The park is open every day, from sunrise to sunset, but the center is generally closed
except for the peak flower season. We have been told that it contains some very good
displays on the local history and habitat, as well as watercolors painted by the “Poppy
Lady,” Jane Pinheiro, who led the struggle, decades ago, to establish the reserve and
protect the poppies from urban development. The center, built back into the hillside with a
graceful curved front, is named the Jane S. Pinheiro Interpretive Center in honor of her
efforts. During the long years of struggle to find the funds necessary to purchase land for
the reserve, a “Pennies for Poppies” program had local school children raising money to
help make the purchase possible. In 1976, the dreams of many dedicated people came true
when the lands of the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve were purchased by the state
for inclusion into the California State Park System. Since then, efforts continue in an
attempt to expand the park to protect the treasured acres. While visiting the poppy
reserve, be sure to also take in the Antelope Valley Indian Museum. Housed in an attractive
Swiss chalet-style building some 30 miles east of Landcaster, the museum displays a wide
range of rare artifacts representing the western Great Basin Indian cultures. Another
interesting stop is the Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park, found five miles west
of the poppy reserve (watch for the sign on Lancaster Road). A short nature trail takes you
out among the strange-looking Joshua trees and junipers that once grew in abundance before
the area was cleared for housing and farming. Your best bet for camping in the area is the
Antelope Valley Fair-grounds RV Park in Lancaster. During the middle of April the city
holds a two-day Poppy Festival at City Park, where arts-and-crafts vendors sell a wide
variety of quality handmade items. If you plan to attend the festival, make sure you have
reservations at the fairgrounds well in advance. Talking with locals, we learned that, in a
good year of bloom, the flowers may last even into August — so if you, too, miss the
season’s peak, you can still enjoy visiting the poppy reserve when “gold fever” strikes!

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