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California poppy is great at reducing anxiety and tension

California Poppy

Eschscholzia californica Cham Papaveraceae

"California poppies... are of a burning colour - not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the colour of poppies." - John Steinbeck in East of Eden (1952)

Sustainability status

Not currently on risk lists but complete data may be missing on the status of the species. Commonly cultivated though may be sourced from the wild. Only source cultivated supplies or from certified sustainable wild collection. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Sustainability Status
Key benefits
  • Sedative
  • Anxiolytic
  • For mild to moderate pain
  • How does it feel?

    A preparation of California poppy made by combination of infusion or tincture has a warmly aromatic odour. The initial taste is slightly sweet and warm, then the bitterness comes through from the properties of the alkaloids within.

  • What can I use it for?

    California poppy can ease nervous tension. It is beneficial to helps bring about sleep if taken before bedtime. When one is feeling tired and wired, it can help calm and bring about a state of relaxation.  

    As a herb that is gifted with antispasmodic nervine actions, California poppy may also   be used to ease spasm in the digestive system and in the urinary tract. This may be applied in conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and enuresis. 

    It is also useful to relax the tension of muscular aches. This may be best achieved by a combined approach using a tea made from the fresh flowers and perhaps an accompanying salve to be taken after a hard day’s physical labour. Those with spasmodic conditions associated with the nervous system such as neuralgia and neuropathy will also likely find benefit from using this herb regularly.

    California poppy has a relaxing effect on the nervous system which also makes it useful to use during acute bouts of anxiety or to assist during panic attacks. With its gentle nervine relaxant effect, it may also be used for insomnia, restlessness and migraines.

    It is non-addictive and safe for all ages, in fact it is especially indicated for children for its gently sedative effects and additionally for colic.

  • Into the heart of California Poppy

    California poppy has a long tradition of use in Western herbal medicine for calming the nervous system and has been used for states of unrest such as insomnia, nervous agitation and mild to moderate pain. It can be used for any such presentations in children too including over-excitability.

    California poppy is an excellent nervine that is energetically both cooling and relaxing. This combination of properties offers a perfect antidote to a hot and wired system. This herb may be indicted where there is a hyperactive or agitated state in the nervous system. The positive potential of this plant is to enable calmness and centring one through times of acute stress.

    This herb is often used to support in anxiety. It is popular for use in plant medicine for grounding the nervous system where repetitive thoughts or worries plague the mind. 

    California poppy may be used for pain that interferes with sleep or for pain in the nerves such as is experienced in sciatica and shingles. This can be applied both topically and internally.

    California poppy is thought to have an affinity to the emotional heart. This is due to its dynamic combination of hypotensive, antispasmodic and nervine actions. It is indicated where stresses and strains link to the nervous system causing symptoms in the heart and vascular system. These may be symptoms such as increased heart rate, mild chest pain and palpitations. 

    It can be used to gently relax these tensions, harmonising the mind to bring a sense of calm and serenity to the heart.

  • Traditional uses

    California poppy has a long tradition of use in Western herbal medicine for calming the nervous system, being used for states of unrest such as insomnia, nervous agitation and mild to moderate pain. It can be used for any such presentations in children too, including over-excitability.

    It was used by Native Americans as a food, (the whole plant was cooked and eaten as a vegetable) and as a medicine in various preparations for both children and adults. Tribes from different parts of California used the plant in various ways and for a variety of conditions. The Mendocino used a root preparation applied to a painful tooth, taken for stomach aches or applied as a wash for headaches.

    The Costanoan tribes used a decoction of the flowers to promote healthy sleep and as a preparation to be rubbed into hair to kill lice.  The Chumash made a poultice of the seed pods to halt lactation in breast-feeding.

  • Traditional actions

  • What practitioners say

    Nervous system: California poppy is primarily used these days for its effects on this system. It is dose-dependent, so at lower doses it has anxiolytic effects and at larger doses becomes more sedating and analgesic.

    Children’s remedy: It is often prescribed in children as a sleep aid when there is anxiety, pain, over-excitability. Some of the literature suggests it can be helpful for bedwetting.

    Pain: It is a favoured remedy of many herbalists for the use in minor aches and pains, especially if this is associated with nervous tension. It has a tradition of use headaches and for colicky pains, so can help to ease cramps, spasms and is well-indicated for irritable bowel syndrome.  For overworked muscles it can be taken in the form of a strong tea, perhaps whilst relaxing in an Epsom salts bath; both remedies helping to ease the soreness.

    Insomnia: it is used to good effect for quietening an overactive mind that keeps one wakeful with inner monologue and also to help with the initiation and maintenance of sleep if disturbed by mild pain.

    In combination: It is often mixed in with other nervous system relaxants where there can be a synergistic effect. It combines well with passionflower for hyperactivity and sleep disturbances but other combinations work well too, such as a blend with hops and valerian.

    There are combinations that have been studied which are covered in the Evidence section, including in with another member of the poppy family Corydalis cava, where the analgesic effects were looked at and studies in combination with valerian (in insomnia) and hawthorn (in anxiety).

  • Research

    Extracts have been shown to inhibit adrenalin synthesis and enzymatic breakdown of catecholamines in vitro, contributing to the herb’s calming properties.

    In an in vitro study, a 70% ethanol extract of California poppy was able to bind to serotonin receptors 5-HT(1A) – these are responsible for neuromodulation, decreasing blood pressure & heart rate by blood vessel dilation and stimulation of the vagus nerve.  The activity on the 5-HT(1A) receptor was at least partly due to the presence of the aporphine alkaloidN-methyllaurotetatanine. An extract combination of Californian poppy and Corydalis bound to opioid receptors in vitro which shows promise to explain in part the tradition of use as a pain reliever.

    In a double-blind randomised controlled trial a combination of California poppy, Hawthorn (Crataegus oxycantha) and Magnesium was compared to placebo to evaluate safety and efficacy of the combination on mild to moderate anxiety disorders. The Hamilton anxiety scale, somatic scores and change in patient self-assessment showed that anxiety fell during treatment. The combination proved safe and more effective than placebo.

    A more recent prospective 4 week observational study on a combination of Californian poppy and Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) was carried out on adults with insomnia within a GP practice. Sleep efficiency increased with the duration and frequency of night awakenings decreasing and there was a decrease in anxiety.

    Of course, the above combinations don’t distinguish between the herbs within and more studies are needed on Eschscholzia alone. From other research the findings are that the relatively low levels of alkaloids in the aerial parts of the plant mean higher doses are needed for a sedative effect than an anxiolytic effect.

  • Did you know?

    The opium poppy – Papaver somniferum is renowned for possessing excellent sedative properties. The opioids, (alkaloids within the plant) are utilised by the medical profession in the production of codeine and morphine.  As well as the strong sedative quality, morphine is an extremely powerful analgesic which herbalist doctors in Germany are allowed to prescribe. California poppy is a far safer distant cousin. As it contains no morphine it is a non-addictive, safe option and is actually used within programmes of opiate withdrawal.

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    It has finely pinnated (feathery) blue-green leaves and intense warm yellow-orange solitary 4-petalled flowers, silky in texture & having long stems. The flowers close at night or in cold, windy weather. Slender, cylindrical ribbed seed capsules follow flowering, which split open rather explosively, spreading numerous small globular seeds up to 6 feet away. It is drought-tolerant and spreads well.

  • Common names

    • California poppy
    • Golden poppy
    • Cup of Gold
  • Safety

    Few comprehensive clinical studies have been carried out to explore its role in the management of pain, however California poppy has a long history of use and despite it being a member of the Papaveraceae (poppy) family, it is considered one of the safest anodynes in our herbal dispensary and is often prescribed for children.

    No health risks following proper administration have been recorded, including during pregnancy and lactation, however it is wise to use safer alternatives or seek the advice of a qualified herbalist before use in these circumstances.

    California poppy may bind with the same receptors as those targeted by certain antidepressants (SSRIs or MAO inhibitors), so it should be avoided here.

    One also needs to be mindful that it is likely to have an additive effect when taken with other sedatives or analgesics, whether pharmacological or herbal.

    Finally, it is wise to be very cautious when treating children with analgesic doses of this herb, (which tend to be higher than those to reduce anxiety).  Use for the shortest possible time on the lowest effective dose for pain, again, seeking the advice of a qualified practitioner beforehand.

  • Preparation

    California poppy can be used as a tea from dried or fresh herb or in tincture form. It is said however that medicine made from the herb in fresh form, whether used as a tea or tinctured.

  • Dosage

    Tea 2-6g of dried herb per dose as an infusion.   Two to three cups daily or a single cup at night.

    This has a bitter taste so a tincture may be more palatable.

    3-6 ml per day of a 1:2 strength tincture. Drop doses can be given

  • Plant parts used

    The whole of the aerial parts of the plant are used in herbal medicine, sometimes in combination with the roots.

  • Constituents

    • Isoquinoline alkaloids – these are major in the medicinal actions of California poppy and include: californidine. sanguinarine, chelirubine, macarpine, chelerythrine,  protopine, eschscholtzine, allocryptopine and N-methyllaurotetatanine
    • Flavonoid glycosides – occurring mainly as quercetin isorhamnetine glycosides
  • Habitat

    This graceful hardy annual, or perennial in warmer climates,  is native to western North America and is the state flower of California. It has adapted to grow well in Mediterranean countries and grows well in the UK too, often cultivated for ornamental gardens. It is often found on grasslands and arid land, but is also found in coastal dunes, chaparral and coastal scrub, dry plains and coastal prairies, and the open slopes of pine or redwood forests.

  • Sustainability

    This plant is classed as ‘apparently secure’ by Plant Serve following an assessment of its distribution in its native areas of the US. However, they state that the bigger threat to this plant is the genetic contamination of wild populations. This, coupled with the encroachment of human activities on the historic native habitat of this species is resulting in a large scale, human induced transformation in the distribution and genetic composition of this species.

    Plant Serve also mention that focusing on identifying and delineating good quality, native populations of this plant in its native habitats are some of the efforts needed to conserve the genetic strength of this species. They also state the ‘a conservation strategy should be developed to maintain some such high-quality occurrences in which the gene pool appears to be relatively undiluted by introduced stock, and in which the species is occupying its historic habitat’ (11).

    Habitat loss and over harvesting from the wild are two of the biggest threats faced by medicinal plant species. There are an increasing number of well-known herbal medicines at risk of extinction. We must therefore ensure that we source our medicines with sustainability in mind. 

    The herb supplement industry is growing at a rapid rate and until recent years a vast majority of medicinal plant produce in global trade was of unknown origin. There are some very real and urgent issues surrounding sustainability in the herb industry. These include environmental factors that affect the medicinal viability of herbs, the safety of the habitats that they are taken from, as well as the welfare of workers in the trade.

    The botanical supply chain efforts for improved visibility (transparency and traceability) into verifiably sustainable production sites around the world is now certificated through the emergence of credible international voluntary sustainability standards (VSS). Read our article on sustainable sourcing of herbs to learn more about what to look for and questions to ask suppliers about sustainability.

  • Quality control

    It is said that California poppy is best used fresh as opposed to dried herb form. It may also be tinctured from fresh herb. 

    Herbal Medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to buy herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from unreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.

    Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific/botanical name is used and that suppliers can provide information about the source of ingredients used in the product.

    A supplier should be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration when the supply chain is unknown.

  • How to grow

    California poppy is easy to grow. They prefer poor, well-drained soil in full sun. They do best in poor, well-drained soil and can be grown in exposed or coastal gardens, or in a mixed flower meadow.

    • Sow in a drill springing seeds in thinly along the row. Use a trowel or your fingers to cover seeds very lightly with soil and water with a fine rose watering can.
    • Sow seeds direct in situ where they are to flower between spring and autumn. These plants suffer if moved. 
    • Thin seedlings out once they’re about 4cm tall and again at 8cm, so that they’re spaced about 15cm apart.
    • Deadhead regularly to ensure a long flowering period.
  • Recipe

    California poppy tincture (using the whole fresh plant)

    If you are lucky enough to live where these grow wild, leave them be and use only those you’ve sown & grown. Try to harvest when there are a combination of flowers and seed heads on the plant.

    Method:

    • Gently shake the aerial parts free of bugs and dust, and if you are including the roots rinse those well.
    • Cut into smallish chunks and put into a clean, wide-necked jar gently packing down and cover with vodka.
    • Leave for a month or so upturning once or twice daily.
    • Strain through a double layer of muslin and squeeze the plant material well to get as much liquid out as you can.
    • Try drop doses of between 40- 80 (2-4ml) either straight onto the tongue or diluted in a little water. Maximum daily dose: 6ml.
  • References

    1. Chestnut, V. K., 1902, Plants Used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California, Contributions from the U.S. National Herbarium 7:295-408., page 351.
    2. Bocek, Barbara R, 1984 Ethnobotany of Costanoan Indians, California, Based on Collections by John P Harrington.
    3. Chumash ref: (Garcia C, Adams J (2009) Healing with medicinal plants from the west. ISBN-13 978-0976309130
    4. Kleber E, Schneider W etc al. (1995): Modulation of key reactions of the catecholamine metabolism by extracts from Eschscholtzia californica and Corydalis cava .Arzneim Forsch Feb;45(2):127-31.
    5. Gafner, S.Dietz, B. M., McPhail et al. (2006). Alkaloids from Eschscholzia californica and their capacity to inhibit binding of [3H]8-Hydroxy-2-(di- N-propylamino) tetralin to 5-HT1A receptors in Vitro. J Nat Prod.69(3):432-435: 16562853
    6. Reimeier C etc al. (1995): Effects of ethanolic extracts from Eschscholtzia californica and Corydalis cava on dimerization and oxidation of enkephalins. Arzneimittelforschung.45(2): 132-6
    7. HL Schafer et al. (1995) Sedative action of extract combinations of Eschscholtzia californica and Corydalis cava. Arzneimittelforschung. Feb;45(2):124-6.
    8. Hanus M, Lafon J and Mathieu M. (2004). Doubleblind, randomised, placebo-controlled study to evaluate the efficacy and safety of a fixed combination containing two plant extracts (Crataegus oxyacantha and Eschscholtzia californica) and magnesium in mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders. Current Medical Research and Opinion. 20(1): 63–71.
    9. Abdellah Saminra Ait, Berlin A etc al. (2020) A combination of Eschscholtzia californica Cham. And Valeriana officinalis L. extracts for adjustment insomnia: A prospective observational study. Journal of Trad & Comp Med. 10(2): 116-123.
    10. Zampieron ER(2008). Successful application of Eschscholzia californica to combat opioid addiction. Int J Complement Alt Med. 2018;11(4):228- 229. DOI: 10.15406/ijcam.2018.11.00403
    11. explorer.natureserve.org. (n.d.). NatureServe Explorer 2.0. [online] Available at: https://explorer.natureserve.org/Taxon/ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.160245/Eschscholzia_californica [Accessed 25 Nov. 2022].
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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