Californian Poppy
Common Names

Californian poppy
Botanical Name
Eschscholtzia californica

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What is it?

In herbal medicine, we use all the dried aerial parts (leaves and flowers) of the beautiful Californian poppy, a herb that, as the name suggests, is the official state flower of California and is native to that area as well as to Mexico. Californian poppy is a drought-resistant herb that can be a perennial but grows best as an annual up to 1.5 metres in height and doing well with full sun in dry, sandy, drained and poor soil.




How has it been used?

Native American tribes used the leaves and flowers, of Californian poppy for their sedative and pain-relieving properties and for the relief of toothache, especially in children.

Thomas Bartram recommends Californian poppy for insomnia, migraines, stressful conditions, nervous bowel, anxiety, depression and neuralgia (nerve pain). Rudolph Weiss writes that this herb is good for states of unrest, sleep disorders and nocturnal enuresis (bed-wetting).

Californian poppy has traditionally been used for reducing pain and helping to promote calm sleep without the dangers of the more powerful opiates of the Opium poppy. Its muscle relaxing actions has seen it be especially used for children to help with the pain of colic or whooping cough.

It was of interest to medical practitioners in America in the late 19th century and was described in 1892 as 'an excellent soporific (sleep inducing) and analgesic (pain-relieving), which is above all harmless. The effect produced by Californian poppy is the same as that of morphine, without the inconvenience of the latter drug.'


Science on Californian poppy

~ Californian poppy, like the opium poppy, contains a number of isoquinoline alkaloids. These include such potent chemicals as californidine, eschscoitzine, allocryptopine, protopine, papaverine and noscapine. Although the narcotic effect of Californian poppy is much less potent than that of morphine or codeine it will still have pronounced sedative and hypnotic (sleep inducing) effects when taken in sufficient dosages. In moderate amounts, it can be seen to be non-sedating but still able to relieve neuralgia (nerve-pain).

~ The use of Californian poppy in two controlled clinical trials showed that it could normalise disturbed sleeping behaviour without any evidence of carry-over effects or addiction. (Schafer HL et al: Arzneim Forsch 45(2): 124-126, 1995)

~ A study combining California Poppy with Crataegus oxyacantha and measured against placebo in 264 patients with diagnosed General Anxiety Disorder of mild to moderate intensity over a period of three months showed statistically significant benefits associated with all parameters of Anxiety (assessed by Hamilton Anxiety Scores) on day 14, 60, and 90 (Hanus M, Lafon J, Mathieu M Double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study to evaluate the efficacy and safety of a fixed combination containing two plant extracts (Crataegus oxyacantha and Eschscholtzia californica) in mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders . Curr Med Res Opin 2004)

~ A large single dose of Californian poppy (6.7 grams of herb - about 2 heaped tsps) was shown to cause a distinctive change in electroencephalograph recording (EEG) compared to readings obtained by placebo. (Schultz H, Jobert M, Hubner WD: Phytomed 5(6):449-458, 1998)

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of a small handful of further studies and articles on Californian poppy are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Californian poppy

Californian poppy has not been found to have any adverse reactions in the medical literature. Although it is suggested to use it with caution in children with pain it should be noted that it has traditionally been used as a sedative and pain-reliever for the very young. Californian poppy is not seen to be a risk for pregnant or breastfeeding women (a good indicator that it is understood to be a highly safe herb).

As with all analgesics (pain relieving medicines) there must be a caution for overuse when the cause of the problem is not being addressed - paradoxically this can especially be an issue when a medication is working effectively! As the person has less pain they may be able to do more of that activity that was doing them harm and so potentially, in the long run, get worse rather than better.


Personal experiences

I have particularly warm feelings for Californian poppy, a picture of a beautiful field of its flowers has been plastering the front of my business card whilst my details are in the background. This choice was no accident, the Poppy flower is a time-honoured symbol for every physician's wish, that all beings may be free from suffering and pain and the causes of suffering and pain.

Californian poppy is a medicine that I especially rate for those cases where pain and nervous tension have simply become too much for the person to manage without help.

I am especially fond of using Californian poppy in the form of a tea where using between 1-2 heaped tsps in a cup of hot water for about 10-15 minutes has a wonderfully relaxing action that can be felt throughout the entire nervous system.

Anyone that is studying herbal medicine or would just like to learn more about this great plant ally for their own reasons will do well to take a tsp of its tincture or a cup of its tea and then feel for themselves how gently and deeply the soothing, relaxing effects of Californian poppy go. This is part of what is described as the herbs 'action' and it is a marvellous way to deepen one's understanding - through experience.

Further to this, if you would like to learn more about the ancient art of pulse testing, a simple but powerful way to ask the intuitive intelligence of the body for its responses to a herb by feeling the pulse whilst giving a tiny dose by mouth, read here

I mostly use the tincture of Californian poppy for children where they are in physical discomfort because of pain in their nerves, their teeth, or their breathing. In my experience, it will not cause any kind of excessive narcotic-like effect but rather it is really quite gentle in its action. It sedates without a loss of clarity.

I do not think that this is a herb that one necessarily uses for long periods but rather one to look for in acute need where the right dose is the one that can be palpably felt in the form of some welcome relaxation and or relief from pain.

As a herb to help with disturbed sleep in adults, it is excellent to combine with the great pair of Passionflower and Skullcap. For children who are in discomfort or who likewise are having troubles sleeping I would likely use it with the gentle nerve tonics of Oatstraw and Chamomile


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Californian poppy is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This interesting and useful subject is introduced further here

There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Californian poppy can particularly offer its benefits when a relaxing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing' , more about this here

Further pharmacological research on Californian poppy

~ A sedative effect was observed for Californian poppy extract after injection and from high oral doses in experimental models in terms of both behavioural effects and promotion of sleep. The sedative and anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) are most likely linked to benzodiazepine-receptor activation because they were antagonised (blocked) by the benzodiazepine-receptor antagonist flumazenil in vivo (by injection).

~ Californian poppy extract inhibits the enzymatic degradation of catecholamines and the synthesis of epinephrine (adrenaline) in vitro. Preserving high levels of catecholamines may explain the sedative and antidepressant activity of Californian poppy.

~ An extract of Californian poppy (80%) and Corydalis (20%) has demonstrated the ability to interact with opiate receptors in vitro, which may explain its analgesic activity.

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!




© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd