California Poppy: A Clinical Perspective by Benjamin Zappin
California Poppy (Eschscholtzia californica) is a plant near and dear to the hearts of SIBM and to any herbalist who has taken time to establish a relationship with this predictably efficacious medicinal ally. Upon learning of, and experiencing it’s medicinal virtues, it is difficult to observe this plant in the wild or in a garden without feeling its calming effects on the spot.
The purpose of this writing is not to present a comprehensive monograph of California Poppy (this will be done is the second half of our Integrating Western Herbs into Chinese Medicine: Materia Medica series), but to highlight a few applications that are worth integrating into one’s personal herbal exploration and into one’s clinical practice. I also aim to give some contrasting perspectives on dosing as there are many ways of viewing one plant as an individual herb or part of a developed system of herbal application.
A favorite illustrative experience for me with this plant happened to me one day sitting in bumper to bumper traffic feeling urgent about getting to somewhere that seemed important to me at the time. My mind started racing with vitriolic rage at the drivers who were obstructing me from my destination and as a reflex (read oral fixation) I reached for the 1 oz tincture bottle by the gear shift and took a mere few drops of whatever it was. A few minutes later I caught myself aware that my frame of mind was profoundly serene, noticing the pleasant weather, and singing along to the radio without having to turn it up to drown my thoughts. This showed me that this herb can be very effective at lower drop doses, which I always welcome as it challenges my “more is better” perspective/complex. I continue to recommend this herb in low doses to people with repeated success in addressing agitated, irascible states of mind and find it a profound tool for effecting shifts, often in just the right moment, thus coining it a favorite ‘road rage’ herb.
Another common application for me is to employ California Poppy either as a single herb or in formula for children. Extracted in glycerin, the bitterness becomes tolerable and this simple and safe herb predictably relaxes tension and quiets mental agitation while facilitating restful sleep. For irritability and difficulty focusing I combine it with Lemon Balm (Melissa officianalis) and Catnip (Nepeta cataria) and will increase the dosage in combination with the same herbs to help a child sleep, and it is to be considered in cases where nightmares or frightfulness ensue as well as scenarios where the nervous system is agitated due to too much stimuli. I usually start with a dropper of the glycerin tincture of these herbs to substantial effect. From an energetic perspective, this is utilizing the bitter, slightly acrid, and cooling nature to clear heat from the heart and quiet the spirit. This can also be employed in liver-gallbladder constraint scenarios where the heat ascends and creates heart vexation. The bitterness drains fire from the heart and liver and the acridity resolves liver-gallbladder constraint.
While my leaning is to spare my patients the intensely bitter flavor of this herb, it does make for a very useful decoction and is of great utility in remedying painful conditions such as menstrual pain, colic, toothache, stomach pain, and also pain from traumatic injury. California Poppy can provide substantial analgesia when applied to such conditions in doses of 4-12 g of the dried herb. I will also simmer a similar amount of the fresh root and/or seed pod for 10 minutes as I am more likely to recognize the fresh herb as what a condition needs and I rarely stock it dried. Consider such an application the next time someone you know takes a fall while you are waiting for the arnica to bring down the swelling. Also, consider giving California Poppy to your next patient who complains that the menstrual formula that they didn’t take very consistently wasn’t helping enough. The analgesic effects of the herb will meet their immediate needs and the bitterness will remind them to follow through with a consistent protocol around their cycle!