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The Poppies of Castroville

By Jay White
Contributing Writer

As any bluebonnet-loving Texan will confirm, a large mass of flowers is a beautiful and awe-inspiring thing to encounter. Even though bluebonnets bloom at the same time and in the same places as they did the year before, we Texans (and lots of visitors) load up our cars each and every year and hit the road to document the beautiful blue flowers that temporarily turn our hayfields and highways into something truly amazing.

Mass is one of the tools that landscape architects use to create stunning gardens. We go to see the bluebonnets each year because nature masses them for us. The citizens of Castroville, Texas, have learned over the last 170 years that what works for bluebonnets works just as well for other flowers. Since the first French immigrants arrived here in 1844, the citizens of the “Alsace of Texas” have been cultivating and using bright red poppies in their yards and fields to brighten their town and attract the tourists who contribute so much to the local economy as they tour.

According to local lore, the tradition of growing poppies in Castroville began with the earliest settlers. While no one knows if this is true or not, it is entirely possible. When many of the European immigrants came to Texas, they brought their culture and their plants with them. We know for certain that roses, bulbs and shrubs like myrtle were brought here by the immigrants, who were leaving Europe in droves in the early 1800s.

If I were an immigrant and I wanted to bring a plant to my new world, I would bring poppies. Since their seeds are so tiny, I could get a whole lot of them in a very small space. Add to this the fact that poppies will germinate in a wide range of soil types and a wide range of climates, and I would be pretty certain that I would have beautiful red flowers my first spring to remind me of home.

My family and I have visited Castroville several times and we have always left feeling that this well-maintained rural Texas town with a French accent is one of the most charming little towns in all of Texas. If you would like to experience the poppies that turn South-Central Texas into a close facsimile of the bucolic French countryside, you should plan to visit during March through April. If you want an estimation of when they will be blooming, be sure to call the Chamber of Commerce at (830) 538-9838 or email tourism@castrovilletx.gov.

You can start your tour of Castroville at the Steinbach House. Steinbach House is a 1618 Fachwerk house (a style of building common in Germany, France and Switzerland that features roughhewn beam construction with stucco infill) that was moved here from Wahlberg, France, in 1998. This lovingly restored antique home serves as Castroville’s Visitor Center. The visitor center is small and only takes a few minutes to tour. However, the tour will give you some great insight into the settlers who originally settled here. It is also where you can pick up maps to more than 50 restored Alsatian, Fachwerk and early-Texas style properties that are all covered with poppies. In my opinion, the best way to enjoy the poppies of Castroville is on the walking tour.

One of the best properties on the tour (for both flowers and architecture) belongs to Texas Gardener readers Lloyd Ross and Sally Coyle. They live in an 1851 stone and stucco building that was built by one of the original settlers. In addition to their stone house, their property features an 1840s–1850s log cabin just yards away from the main home, an original well from the 1850s, a windmill from the 1920s and an old cooking hearth from the 1800s.

Lloyd and Sally have worked very hard through the years to ensure that their property is literally bursting in bright red poppies every spring. They have been so successful propagating the poppies that Lloyd now needs to cut paths through them so the several hundred visitors who drop by each year have easy access to admire the flowers, buildings and structures. These paths provide easy access to the structures and a great place to take amazing pictures. The property is so lovely and accessible to photographers that it has been featured by several renowned photographers and in several newspaper articles across the state. In fact, the property is so photogenic that if you go to Google and type in “Castroville Poppies” almost all of the images that come back are from it.

Growing poppies in Castroville has been serious business for many years. No one is sure exactly when the town first decided to adopt poppy propagation as a way to build community spirit and promote the town. However, many of the old-timers remember people on the Chamber of Commerce passing out seeds of poppies to anyone who would take them since the 1950s. Lloyd and Sally work with others in the community to keep this tradition alive. Each year, Lloyd gathers the seeds from the several different varieties of poppies on his property and saves them to replant in the fall.

I have been a serious lover (and grower) of poppies for years. I am pretty certain that after you visit Castroville this spring you will want to become a poppy grower, too. You will have no trouble growing poppies because they are so adaptable and so prolific. They grow in sand and they grow in clay. They grow in Iceland and South Texas. If you don’t currently have poppies, look for transplants in the spring. You do not have to be too picky about variety. Most poppies will bloom in a variety of soil types and climates.

Depending on the weather, your poppies should bloom sometime between March and May. This is literally my favorite time of the gardening year. At my house, my poppies pop first, then the bluebonnets bloom and finally the daylilies start blooming every day. Once the first poppy blooms, I begin watching the heads that they leave behind. Poppy “heads” are actually the flower’s ovary. The ovary contains hundreds of tiny black seeds. After the flower petals fall off the head, the head begins to dry out. When it is completely dry, little holes open up at the top of the head. When this happens, the seeds in the ovary are mature. “You can shake them out like pepper,” as Lloyd says, or you can shake them into a paper bag to save for fall planting. One word of caution to you seed savers. If you do not wait until the head dries out completely and the holes open at the top, the seeds in the ovary will not be viable.

Nature designed poppies to spill their seeds on the ground as soon as their pods dry. Because of this, you can literally do nothing and get some poppies to return year after year. However, the seeds that fall out of the pod naturally are subject to many perils. Poppy pods do not completely empty when the wind blows or plants fall. Many of the seeds that do fall to the ground are carried away by wind or water or critters. To avoid these perils and get the largest number of poppies possible, plant them yourself in the fall.

I like to put my poppy seeds out in October. If you want to get a stand of poppies established in a field or meadow, mow it as close to the ground as possible and water it for a couple of days before planting. Scatter the seeds and then walk back and forth over the area several times. This will bring as many of the tiny seeds as possible in contact with the soil, greatly enhancing their chance of sprouting.

When I plant in a bed I use a little more finesse than when I plant in a field. First, I water the bed well for a couple of days. Then I pull my mulch back to expose bare soil. I then run a rake over the exposed soil to loosen it up. Once I spread the tiny seeds over the prepared area, I run the rake in the opposite direction and then cover it with the mulch.

This spring, when you are loading up the camera to head out and admire the bluebonnets, why not add some pictures of bright red poppies to your album? The people of Castroville have been growing them for your enjoyment since 1844. As you head west out of San Antonio on Hwy 90, the rough landscape of South Texas transforms almost magically into a bucolic French landscape filled with Alsatian and Fachwerk style homes and businesses, French bakeries, antique shops and fields and fields of French poppies.

Throughout history, poppies have meant many different things to many different people. The Greeks used poppies in their art and architecture to symbolize sleep. The Romans used them to symbolize both peace and death. In 1844, red poppies represented home to the group of immigrants that left France and sailed to Texas to become the original settlers of Castroville. Now, the descendants of those poppies remind us of a time and a people that were willing to leave their homes and their families behind in pursuit of the dream of freedom.

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