eschscholzia californica // california poppy
Actions: Relaxant nervine, anodyne, antispasmodic.
Its high spring in California and the hillsides are awash with the gold blossoms of our state flower: California Poppy. While beautiful to look at, its also highly medicinal and one of the most commonly used plant medicines both in my practice and at home.
Related to the opium poppy (but much more gentle— in fact its so safe it can even be used by children), it is, without a doubt, one of the best nervous system relaxers, sedatives and pain relievers around. Its primary use for me is for insomnia— the type of insomnia that comes from stress and anxiety: from a nervous system run amok. It works like magic for people who are so stressed that they lie awake for hours into the night thinking about everything that needs to be done (and in the dark hours of the night have you noticed how much more hopeless these never-ending lists are?), or who wake up throughout the night because they are so stressed they never quite get to sleep. Their nervous systems are switched to ‘ON’ and they never quite switch off even when they need to. For people like this California poppy just takes the nervous system down a notch, to the point where they can actually sleep through the night without waking up to panic. The added benefit is that the sleep they do have is much more productive to the body as its not a half-sleep but a more fulfilling deep rest.
California poppy is also of utmost usefulness in people who cannot sleep due to pain, primarily from injuries to the musculoskeletal system. If you toss and turn and cannot get comfy; if your joints ache just a little too much to let you sleep well; if your torn LCL is throbbing like a nuclear reactor, this is the herb for you. It is slightly antispasmodic, enough that it can be of great relief with cramps and muscle spasm of any kind, be it due to menstrual cramps, or a spasmodic cough that’s keeping someone awake all night.
Another slightly less common use is for anxiety throughout the day. The type of anxiety that sends one into a tizzy or a spiral of never-ending panic, jitters, inability to take a deep breath and focus. A small dose of California poppy usually puts a halt to the never-ending cycle and gives one enough space to take a deep breath and step out from the cycle.
This application extends to kids and adults who get locked into late night cycles and won’t go to sleep even though they are clearly tired. This is especially easy to see with children who seem to get a little hyperactive or grouchy when overtired. Once again, California poppy stops the cycle.
When taking it for any of these uses that involve sleep, it is not an overt sedative— you won’t take it and then fall asleep wherever you are as if you had taken a sleeping pill (if you want this effect, combine it with passionflower, and while it’ll never be as strong as a pharmaceutical, you’ll find that it at least makes one slightly drowsy) but it does help with the act of falling asleep, and the most miraculous thing to most of the people who wake up throughout the night is that it happens less, or stops altogether. As mentioned before, it tones things down, calms the nervous system, allows one to fall into a deeper sleep and hopefully stay there.
As you can see, the common factor in these uses is that it calms the nerves, be it the psychological nerves or the actual pain receptors. So when looking to use it, look to the nerves and you’ll see other uses everywhere.
Collecting and processing: It is illegal to gather California poppy in the wild in California (it comes with a $1500 fine) simply because it is the state flower, not because it lacks abundance. This, however, isn’t much of a problem as it is one of the easiest things to grow (and if you can’t grow it, I’ll bet one of your neighbours, or friendly local Ecology Center has it), and it tolerates low water, being a native to this area. Personally I approach said neighbours and strike up a bargain for plant matter in exchange for medicine: you’d be surprised at the sheer number of people who have sleep issues. The whole plant (leaves, roots, flowers and seed pods) is used in medicine. Once you have a stand of plants that is legally collectable, look for a plant that has both blooms and seed pods, and take a little digging trowel or hori-hori, slide it into the soil vertically along the base of the plant, and wiggle it back and forth. At the same time, grasp the entire plant at the base and slowly wiggle it until it comes out of the ground. Brush off the dirt and you’re good to go.
To make a basic tincture, chop up the plant, stuff in a mason jar, then top the jar up with alcohol (the higher percentage, the stronger the medicine) so that the plant matter is fully submerged. Shake every few days and strain after 6 weeks, pour some into a dropper bottle, and you’re done. We’ll go over different tincture making techniques (and make our own!) in my class on Saturday the 19th April.
For insomnia, take 20-50 drops (approx 1/4- 1/2 tsp) taken over the course of an hour before bed. Play around to find your dosage, but in general if you are small and sensitive, start lower and if you’re big and robust, try higher. I put the dosage in a small glass of water and take small sips over the hour till it’s gone. There’s no easy way to say this: it tastes vile. The easiest way to take it is briefly. That said, it’s well worth the disgusting flavour for the relief of a good night’s sleep.
For pain, larger doses work better. Go with the 40-80 drops (1/2-1 tsp). Experiment with this. Too much and you’ll feel groggy, and its unnecessary. There’s a sweet spot at which pain is relieved so you can sleep better, and any more after that is just a waste of good plant matter. Once again, in water helps with the whole ‘vile flavor’ thing.
For anxiety throughout the day, take it in drop doses— usually 5-10 drops (1/8- 1/4 tsp) every few hours will do it. You run the risk of getting groggy at higher doses, and if its the right herb it should work fine at lower dose.
Kiva Rose's monograph
Michael Moore's Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West
Charles Kane: Medicinal plants of the American Southwest