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In a world seemingly determined to wind up our springs and set us down to scurry about our appointed tasks, it would be nice to find an herb that could ease our daily angst without hammering us into oblivion or making us see things that aren’t really there.

Enter the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). This radiant, four-petaled emblem of The Golden State has a long and respected history as a nervine and sedative. California poppies grow up to two feet tall, but their thin stems and deeply divided, pinnate leaves tend to sprawl a bit. The plant's native range includes every western state except Montana; it is widely cultivated elsewhere. California poppies grow in distubed sites, across open grasslands and on sunny hillsides. The delicate, orange-red blossoms shed their petals soon after flowering, leaving long, tubular seed pods that explode delightfully when they mature (or when they're sharply tapped by a marauding herbalist).

Although it’s in the same family as the potent Oriental poppy (Papaver somniferous), California poppy’s active ingredients are isoquinolone alkaloids, rather than opioids. Principal among these compounds is californidine, which is pleasantly sedating but not disorienting; furthermore, long-term use of californidine doesn’t lead to physiologic dependence or addiction. In low doses, California poppy is a mild relaxant; in higher doses, it induces sleep. The tradition of giving California poppy to restless babies attests to the herb’s gentle nature. Like its narcotic cousin, California poppy has pain-relieving properties, too.  

The medicinal properties of California poppy are found throughout the plant. Most herbalists collect the aerial parts when the plant is in flower and dry them for several weeks. (Fresh plants contain cyanogenic glycosides, which are toxic when ingested in large quantities.) Native Americans also employed the mashed roots, from which they extracted the juice to treat stomachaches, tuberculosis and skin wounds, and which they served to gaming companions to gain a competitive edge. The Pomo Indians rubbed mashed seedpods or decoctions on nursing mothers’ breasts to dry up their milk; other tribes used flower infusions and decoctions to treat head lice and toothaches. Infusions, tinctures, decoctions and poultices derived from California poppy have all found favor among healers from various cultures.

In more “modern” times, California poppy has been used, either alone or in combination with other herbs, to treat restless legs syndrome, ADHD in children, bedwetting, insomnia, anxiety disorders, back pain, seasonal affective disorder, headaches, agitated depression and peripheral neuropathy.

An infusion of California poppy can be prepared by steeping about 1/4 ounce of herb in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Drink 3 to 4 cups daily as needed. Decoctions are prepared by simmering 1/4 to 1/2 ounce of herb in one cup of water until one-half of the volume remains. When using water or alcohol extracts of California poppy for nervousness, add 30 to 60 drops (1 to 2 ml) to a cup of water or juice. As a sleep aid, drink a cup of the infusion or use 60 to 90 drops of extract in two tablespoons of water about 1/2 hour before bedtime.  

(Therapeutic efficacy for any of the abovementioned disorders has not been documented in scientific trials, so – as always – readers are cautioned about relying on empirical or traditional evidence to treat medical conditions. Pregnant women should not use California poppy, as it may stimulate uterine contractions.)

Sources

1. Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, 2nd Edition: California Poppy. Thomas Fleming, PharmD, Chief Editor. 2000
2. Prescription for Herbal Healing: California Poppy. Phyllis A. Balch, CNC. 2002
3. Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs: California Poppy. Steven Foster and Christopher Hobbs. 2002