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Petal Power: Tracing the Roots of Globe-Miami’s Signature Poppies

The fields of poppies that blanket the hills on the San Carlos Apache Reservation draw visitors from far and wide. Photo by Kim Stone

Every spring, an explosion of orange and yellow flowers fills the edges of a mile-long section of U.S. Highway 60 between Globe and Miami. They flourish in the most inhospitable of soil conditions that no self-respecting earthworm or gopher would dare consider as a habitable option. 

A few narrow strips of soil on each side of the highway, flanked by a roadside curb on one side and bisected by a sidewalk, support thousands of yellow and orange poppies that flower as early as December or January and continue as late as early June. In fact, at the time of this writing, some are already flowering. 

They look out of place, flourishing next to a bland industrial-looking area that is desperately in need of the seasonal window dressing these poppies provide. In good rainfall years, the blossoms spill out into empty lots and creep up hillsides into residential backyards. 

Anyone who lives in the area or frequents this major artery from Phoenix through Globe-Miami during the spring months knows these flowers well. Even in dry-ish winters with only a smattering of rainfall, they put on a reliable roadside show.

But where did they come from? Who planted them? And when?

I interviewed more than a dozen local people with long memories, perused numerous newspaper articles (thanks to Lee Ann Powers for her research), spent some quality time in Globe-Miami-themed Facebook groups, and pounded the pavement for information wherever I could find it.

Which gold poppy are we talking about?

Both California and Mexican gold poppies are found in Arizona, but only the Mexican poppy Eschscholzia californica ssp. mexicana is a native plant to Arizona and the Sonoran Desert. The California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, mainly grows on the other side of the Colorado River. 

These aren’t the poppies that Game of Thrones devotees know as the plant that produces “milk of the poppy.” That plant would be the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, which is native to central Asia. Our North American poppies are in the same plant family, but certifiably opiate-free. 

Mexican and California poppies look remarkably similar to each other, even to the experts. As my buddy Jim Koweek says in his recent book, Sonoran Desert Plant ID for Everyone, the Mexican poppy is similar to the California poppy “but smaller, less flamboyant and hardier in heat and drought.”

We all know the Mexican gold poppy as the one that can explode into mind-bending masses in well-known locations like Picacho Peak, Peridot Mesa on the San Carlos Reservation, the Superstition Mountains, Roosevelt Lake, Peachville Mountain near Superior, and, potentially, in millions of acres in, around, and between.

But what about the poppies found along Hwy 60 in a mile-long strip through Lower Miami and Claypool? I’m convinced they are mostly California poppies, for two main reasons. 

First off, California poppies are known to be perennial (Mexican gold poppies are annuals). Perennial means they can live for more than one year and don’t have to rely on seeds to reproduce. They have the potential to “over summer,” ready to grow again in the winter and spring when the conditions are right, despite any green visible above the surface.

Even in seasons with scanty fall and winter rains, these tough-but-beautiful poppies still manage to make a prominent appearance just about every year. This is partly because the concrete sidewalk and curbing along this section of highway help retain moisture underneath and keep it from evaporating. 

But what is probably a bigger factor is the California poppy’s perennial nature. These perennial forms often have beefy taproots that can access deeper soil moisture. 

That’s not to say they don’t also reproduce from seed, because they do—like crazy. Anyone who has ever seeded their yard with poppies, either California or Mexican, knows that within a few years, they can quickly have more poppies than they bargained for. 

Making all this even more confusing is a 1978 study that showed California and Mexican gold poppies will hybridize. With that kind of poppy promiscuity, who knows what they really are?

The second reason is that California poppies have been cultivated for nearly two centuries, which has given plant breeders plenty of time to toy with this plant and bend it to their will. They strived for bigger, better flowers in more of a variety of colors that flowered earlier and lasted longer. When they were happy with the result, they grew them in mass quantities and placed the resultant seed in little packets. 

As early as the late 1880s, California poppy seeds were commercially available for people to plant. 

So, who planted the poppies and where did they come from?

The earliest public record of California poppies growing in Globe-Miami was from an ad Mrs. Daisy Claypool placed in the Arizona Silver Belt in 1920. She sold cut flowers (not seeds) that included California poppies from her large flower garden next to the Claypool pump house (now owned by Arizona Water Company and located behind the Shamrock Bar). She wasn’t selling seeds directly, but birds, ants, wind, water—and people—could have spread her garden poppies hither and yon. 

In the early 1930s, lifelong resident Jo Nell Brantley told me her mother was a member of the Women’s Garden Club. One of their projects was to beautify the highway by planting gold poppy seeds. It’s not clear which poppies they planted (California or Mexican), but this is the first and earliest record I know of poppies being planted by humans along Highway 60. 

The next memories I was able to tap into came from people who were either alive and kicking in the 1950s and 1960s—or who had a friend or family member who was. 

One of my favorites centers around the Blakely Gas Station, (abandoned, but still standing) between the Shamrock Bar and the LDS church. Many people I spoke to remember the Blakely collectible frosted tumblers, each imprinted with a different desert plant. Buy a tank of gas and one of these collectibles was yours to add to your collection. 

Nora Green, a long-time local resident, remembers that her husband’s grandfather, Pete Johnson, told her that Blakely also handed out packets of poppy seeds. This is one of those stories that has circulated for years, but Nora is the first person I’m aware of that confirms it. 

Clearly, not everyone who received seeds from Blakely’s valued them as much as the frosted tumblers. So they would often chuck the seeds out their car window as they drove down the highway, giving the seeds a fighting chance to germinate. These were likely commercial seed packets, which means they were probably California poppies. 

Another poppy seed story I wasn’t able to independently verify concerned a Boy Scout beautification project. This was a spin-off of Lady Bird Johnson’s interest in wildflowers during her husband’s administration in the mid-1960s. Their seed planting was reportedly accomplished in a one or two-block area of Claypool. 

Yet another documented tale comes from the 1950s or early 1960s, when a poppy-loving mom in Claypool sent her son out every day after school to collect poppy seeds along the railroad tracks behind the old National Guard Armory (now the Miami Regional Training Center). They spread the seeds into new areas and waited until the next spring to enjoy the flowers of their labors. 

The fields of poppies blanketing the hills on the San Carlos Apache Reservation draw visitors from far and wide. The area is a photographer’s dream. Note a permit is required from the tribal parks/recreation office located just south of Noline’s Market on Hwy 77. The cost is $10 per person or couple. The mesa is located on Hwy 77 between milepost 268 and 269, and while there are no trails, there are a few graded dirt roads that go up to the mesa.

You can’t fool Mother Nature

All of these origin stories about the Highway 60 poppies have a human hand involved. Without the efforts of poppy lovers of the past, we might not have much to look at. 

This also means that the mix of poppies is likely a hodgepodge of native Mexican gold poppies, domesticated California poppies, and perhaps hybrids between them. So if you find an occasional white, pink, or red flower, don’t look too surprised. 

Ultimately, gold poppies, like all desert wildflowers, are at the beck and call of when, where, and how the fall and winter rains fall. But in my experience, poppies are pickier than most. 

After keeping rainfall records at Boyce Thompson Arboretum for several decades— and more recently at my own rain gauge in Globe—my conclusion is that the best poppy blooms come from substantial rains that fall in October and November. 

The 2022-2023 season followed this formula closely, with one 2.18” rain event in October 2022, followed by another 2.92” soaker in the first few days of December. Another 2.20” fell over 4 days in January 2023. A total of 3 more inches fell in February, March, and April. 

The most likely scenario for the proliferation of the Highway 60 poppies over the years is not the Johnny Appleseeds amongst us (though we helped), but the guiding hand of Mother Nature. Not only are some of these gold poppies perennial, but they also produce gazillions of tiny seeds (270,000 per pound), during lush years like 2023. 

It’s a seed banking system that’s constantly reinvesting the interest. And we get to reap the benefits.

Pictured left to right, Lee Ann Powers, Jessica Doong and Deb Yerkovich are busy wrapping poppy seeds in clay and potting soil which will then be planted throughout the community. The seed pods will also be available for sale at the Chamber of Commerce. AZpoppyfest

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