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The Benefits of California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

by Anne McIntyre(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 209 - October 2013


Pleasures are like poppies spread,

You seize the flower the bloom is shed.

Robert Burns (1759-96)


California Poppy
California Poppy

With its vibrantly colourful annual flower, the California poppy is a wonderful asset to brighten the garden in summer and yet it has so much more to offer as a great antidote to stress. It is the state flower of California, native to the west of North America and is also found growing in southern France, Australia and Chile. It was first described by Adelbert von Chamisso (c.1820), a naturalist on a Russian ship, the Rurik, on a scientific expedition to California in 1810.  On seeing hillsides apparently on fire with their covering of the poppies,  he named the genus in honour of his close friend Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz, a Baltic German botanist who was also the expedition's physician. The flower is usually golden orange in colour, hence its common name ‘golden poppy’. 

California poppy is a member of the Papaveraceae family, cousin to the infamous opium poppy, but far less powerful. The leaves and flowers have a wonderfully relaxing effect and constitute a great ‘feel good’ herb with subtle euphoric properties. The plant was used for colicky pains and toothache by the native Americans and early settlers and was first introduced to Europe as an ornamental. It began to be used as a medicine in the last century, when it rapidly gained a reputation as a non-addictive alternative to the opium poppy, and a safe remedy to calm excitability, restlessness, anxiety, pain, tension and insomnia in adults and children alike.

Modern Medicinal Uses

California poppy contains isoquinoline alkaloids (including californidine, sanguinarine, escholzine, protopine, crytpopine, chelidonine), flavone glycosides (including rutin, quercetin and isorhamnetin) carotenoids and essential oil. It acts as a nervine, sedative, analgesic, febrifuge, antispasmodic, anxiolytic, thymoleptic, antihistamine and uterine stimulant.

It is an excellent herb for the nervous system and can be thought of as a gentle balancer to the emotions and a calming remedy for times of stress; research has borne out its sedative and anxiolytic properties.[1] It is suitable for calming both children and adults, helping to reduce anxiety and tension in the day and induce sleep at night without side effects of drowsiness or stupor. It can be used to ease depression, restlessness and agitation, and is especially good for people who find it hard to let go and relax and push themselves too hard, often to the point of exhaustion.

Its antispasmodic action relaxes muscles throughout the body, making it a useful remedy for soothing tense, aching muscles and treating stress-related gut problems, IBS, colic and gallbladder pain. It can also be used for relieving tension headaches and is excellent for treating bedwetting in children, asthma and spasmodic coughs where there is a stress element; in fact it can be added to prescriptions for a wide variety of stress-related conditions. By calming the nervous system California poppy influences the heart and circulation. It slows a rapid heart, relieves palpitations, and reduces blood pressure.

The cognitive enhancing properties of California poppy can be useful in the treatment of behavioural disorders such as ADD, ADHD in children and young adults. It has also been used to improve intellectual capacity, memory and concentration in the elderly. Rudolf Weiss states that the effect of California poppy is towards “…establishing equilibrium,” and is not at all narcotic.[2] It is well worth using when trying to withdraw from addiction, whether to alcohol, drugs, orthodox drugs or tobacco. It has also been shown to inhibit the enzymatic degradation of catecholamines, including dopamine beta-hydroxylase and monoamine oxidase (MAO-B), as well as the synthesis of adrenaline.[3]

California poppy can be taken internally in teas and tinctures and applied externally in lotions and liniments to allay pain, including tension headaches, migraine, toothache, neuralgia, sciatica, earache, back pain, arthritic pain, sciatica and the pain of shingles. As an antimicrobial it can be applied to cuts and scrapes to ease pain and minimize risk of infection. Apparently the tincture or paste of the seed pods can be used as a wash for suppressing lactation in breast-feeding women, although I cannot personally attest to this having never applied it in this way.

From an Ayurvedic perspective, California poppy cools heat in the mind by reducing excess sadhaka pitta, and so makes an excellent remedy for irritability, low self-esteem, depression, headaches, insomnia, being overly critical, over-achieving and analytical, and for OCD. As it reduces pitta in the rasa and rakta dhatus, it can be used to relieve palpitations, hypertension and pain from inflammation as in arthritis, shingles, cholecystitis and toothache.  With its anulomana action it helps reduce spasm and pain in lower abdomen and so can be used to ease colic and menstrual pain.

California poppy is best avoided in pregnancy and breastfeeding and is contra-indicated in glaucoma. It should not be taken with MAOIs, tranquilizers, CNS depressants (e.g. alcohol, opiates, benzodiazepines, anaesthetics, tricyclic anti-depressants, anti-epileptics), and Pentobarbital.  It has a bitter taste so is preferable to take it as a tincture. The recommended dosage is 1-2.5 mls of the tincture (1:2 25%), 1-10g of the dried herb and 5-30g per cup when taken in infusions 3 times daily.

California poppy is certainly one of my favourite nervine herbs and my practice would be impoverished without is as I use it in patients’ prescriptions on an almost daily basis. The poppy symbolizes the ephemeral pleasures of life - here one minute, gone the next and this herb certainly allows one to relax enough to enjoy them!


1.         Rolland A, Fleurentin J, Lanhers MC, Misslin R and Mortier F. Neurophysiological Effects of an Extract of Eschscholzia Californica Cham. (Papaveraceae). Phytotherapy Research 15 (5): 377–3810. August 2001.

2.         Weiss RF. Herbal Medicine. 289; AB Arcanum, Sweden. 1988.

3.         Kleber E, et al. Modulation of key reactions of the catecholamine metabolism by extracts from Eschscholtzia californica and Corydalis cava. Arzneimittelforschung. 1995.


  1. Trish said..

    Just Magnificent! Thank You for Sharing the Splendors of God.

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About Anne McIntyre

Anne McIntyre FNIMH MAPA is a fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and a member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners' Association. She has been practising as a herbalist for 30 years and has also trained in remedial massage, aromatherapy, counselling, homoeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine. She is the author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Complete Woman's Herbal (Gaia), The Complete Floral Healer (Gaia), The Herbal Treatment of Children (Elsevier), The Top 100 Remedies (Duncan Baird), The Complete Herbal Tutor (Gaia) and Healing Drinks (Gaia). Anne's latest book Dispensing with Tradition: A practitioner's Guide to using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way has recently been published. She teaches regularly in the UK and USA and spends as much time as she can in her herb garden which she opens to the public by appointment. She practises at Artemis House, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, (Tel: 01451 810096) and in London and Wales once a month. She may be contacted on Tel: 01451 810096

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