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Prickly poppies begin populating the Valley’s roadsides

Prickly Poppies. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Published March 5, 2022, in the McAllen Monitor.

Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist, South Texas Border Chapter

Cordons of Texas poppies dot the verges of railroad tracks across the Rio Grande Valley and flutter and wave like tiny flags along the roads at the outskirts of the cities.

Not the famed red poppies of Belgium, nor the exotic oriental poppies coveted for their brilliant fiery orange color, these are hearty, well-armed Texas prickly poppies in brilliant white, pastel pinks and fluorescent yellow.

Prickly poppies are in the Papaveraceae family (poppy family). Three species are often found across the Valley: white prickly poppy (Argemone albiflora), the most predominant in the southern half of the state; red poppy (A. sanguinea) also has a white-flowering form; and Mexican poppy or yellow prickly poppy (A. Mexicana).

A Honey Bee heads toward the pollen in a white-flowering Prickly Poppy. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Red Poppy. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Mexican Poppy or Yellow Prickly Poppy. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

No matter the species, the flowers are the eye-catcher from afar. Up close, the plant is something to be admired, certainly, but approached with trepidation. The flowers are large, cup-shaped when fresh and three to four inches broad when fully open; each flower consists of four to six crinkly petals.

Prickly poppy blooms have a unique distinction: the center is a forest of bright yellow stamens, with brownish to purple anthers that surround a thick style tipped by a three to five lobed, dark red-brown stigma. The flowers are pollen rich but have minimal nectar; they are often busy with bees, bugs, beetles and other pollen-gathering insects.

A Dark Flower Scarab beetle visits a Prickly Poppy. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Katydid on Prickly Poppy bloom. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

In contrast to their alluring blooms and popular pollen fests, the flowers are heavily protected by prickly stems and encircled by long, deeply lobed sturdy leaves that end in wicked tips at every point. The leaves are sometimes confused with those of Texas thistle but have a striking difference that distinguishes the prickly poppy leaf: a bold white stripe occurs along the central and radiating rachises of each leaf. The leaf color is a soft, bluish-gray. Sharp, stiff spines also cover the flower buds and seed pods.

All parts of prickly poppies are toxic; the seeds, which are poisonous if ingested, are best left to quail, doves, wild turkey and other birds that benefit from their high oil content. Stems and leaves ooze a latex sap when broken, a chemical defense that keeps foraging herbivores at bay.

Once left to themselves in over-grazed fields, disturbed lands and sandy, gravelly soils, prickly poppies are considered by some as a popular addition to pollinator gardens. They propagate best by seed sown directly into the soil in summer as the seeds ripen, much as the plant would naturally self-sow. The plant establishes branching taproots deep into the ground that do not like to be disturbed.

Individual plants are multi-flowering and reach heights to five feet, but generally are 18 to 32 inches tall.

Mexican Poppy. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

White Prickly Poppy blooms. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

White prickly poppy is common across the southeastern United States; yellow prickly poppies occur from Virginia and Tennessee to Florida and west through Texas; they have smaller flowers, about two and one-half inches across; the plants grow eight to 18 inches tall. Their sap is bright yellow. Red prickly poppy is found in southern Texas and into arid Mexico.

Prickly poppies are an annual wildflower beginning to bloom in March until midsummer.

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