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Welcome the buggy flowers

Mexican Yellow Prickly Poppy (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Published in South Texas Chapter Newsletter, April 2023

Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, South Texas Border Chapter

One of my favorite flowers is beginning to put on a show about now – waving at passers–by to get noticed. Prickly poppies. Fun plants to spot along the sides of roads, or more classically, in that narrow strip between a road and a railroad track.

Pull over and stop only where it’s safe. These posies can always be counted on to offer a buggy surprise inside the bloom.

Prickly poppies are in the Papaveraceae (poppy) family. Three species are often found in Texas: 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.

Individual plants are multi-flowering and reach heights of 18 to 30 inches. They are an annual wildflower beginning to bloom now until midsummer.

Prickly Poppy with Dark Flower Beetle. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Approach with trepidation, not because of bugs – they’ll be busy with the pollen – but because those beautiful flowers are heavily protected by prickly stems and encircled by long, deeply lobed sturdy leaves that end in dagger-sharp tips at every point.

The leaves are easily identified because of their bold white stripe along the central and radiating rachises of each leaf, giving the plants a soft, bluish-gray hue that contrasts sharply with all the stiff spines that cover the leaves, flower buds and seed pods.

Truly, the flowers and plants are worthy of close inspection. 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. The 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. More than once, I’ve found a dark flower scarab, Euphoria sepulcralis, wallowing in the pollen. The blooms are often busy with bees, flies, spiders, katydids, beetles and other insects.

All parts of prickly poppies are toxic and fortunately, the heavily armed plants discourage browsing; the stems and leaves ooze a latex sap when broken, a chemical defense that keeps foraging herbivores at bay.

The seeds, which are poisonous to humans, if ingested, are excellent for quail, doves, wild turkey and other birds that benefit from their high oil content.

Prickly poppy propagates best by seed sown directly into the soil in summer, collected as the seeds ripen and pods open on their own, much as the plants naturally self sow.

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