The East Bay Woman Who Made the Poppy the State Flower

Richard Schwartz, Special to the Planet
Wednesday December 23, 2009 - 08:55:00 AM
John and Sarah Lemmon botanizing in the field.
Courtesy University and Jepson Herbaria, University of California, Berkeley
John and Sarah Lemmon botanizing in the field.

In my book, Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley, I presented the stories of 17 culturally important but largely forgotten local people of the 19th century. Other captivating stories I came across were not right for use in the book but are nonetheless very meaningful.  

That the official state flower of California, the golden poppy, came to be chosen because of the efforts of an East Bay woman who lived at 5958 Telegraph Ave. is one of those fine, important, and nearly lost tales from the turn of the century. The story is a wonderful addition to our local lore, and I thank the Berkeley Daily Planet for helping make this story part of our culture again. —Richard Schwartz 


The story of the poppy becoming the state flower of California really starts in New Orleans in 1884. There, East Bay residents John and Sarah Lemmon attended an exposition during which a discussion arose about choosing state flowers. The Lemmons were renowned self-taught pioneer botanists, well respected by the scientific community. They conducted many wilderness surveys and collected numerous specimens, many of which had never been recorded by science. The Lemmons participated in the discussion at the New Orleans convention, from which would eventually evolve the creation of the National Floral Emblem Society. 

A few years later, John was appointed as a forester with the state of California. At the time, Sarah was giving many botanical lectures filled with all kinds of interesting lore and drawing fine botanical illustrations. The two also accepted employment for five years with the California State Board of Forestry. Sarah Lemmon delivered a lecture on forest conservation at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (world’s fair) in Chicago. There was consideration at the Expo about choosing national and state flowers, which led to the creation of the National Floral Emblem Society shortly thereafter. It has been said that Sarah’s talk may have done much to inspire the discussion.  

In 1890, the California State Floral Society voted to designate a state flower. Three flowers were nominated for this esteemed title in the botanically wondrous state: the golden poppy, the mariposa lily, and the Matilija poppy. The golden poppy won the vote by a wide margin on Dec. 12, 1890. The poor Matilija poppy did not receive any votes despite its beauty and large size.  

It should have come as no surprise to Mrs. Lemmon when she was appointed chairwoman of the California State Committee of the National Floral Emblem Society and given the task of persuading the California Legislature to declare a state flower during its next session. This effort would prove more formidable than anticipated, even though the poppy was already informally accepted as the state flower among the people of California. A determined Sarah Lemmon was up for the challenge and well qualified to be the poppy’s advocate. 

One of the quotes Sarah liked to use in her efforts to win state flower designation for the poppy was from the former California first lady Mrs. Jessie Fremont: “Why, the Eschscholtzia [sic], of course; the golden poppy was born for the state of California.”  

In 1895, Chairwoman Sarah Lemmon succeeded in getting a poppy bill introduced on the floor of the state Senate, and it passed almost unanimously. Disappointingly, the bill was intentionally left to expire unsigned on the governor’s desk. The same thing happened again when a similar bill was introduced in 1899. Newly elected California Gov. Henry Gage, a prominent corporate attorney and federal prosecutor, was quoted as saying, “I do not think the adoption of a state flower is a proper subject for legislation.” But the populace seemed to be at odds with the governor’s sentiments on this subject.  

A poppy bill passed the California Legislature again in 1902, but again met with a veto by Gov. Gage, then at the end of his term. This time, his veto did not end the poppy battle, and the Assembly gathered enough support to approve the bill over the governor’s veto. However, even after this great effort, the state Senate let the bill die without a vote.  

Following this disappointment, the determined Assembly introduced and passed a poppy bill (Senate Bill 251) in its next session in January of 1903, again with a nearly unanimous vote. The bill passed the state Senate in February 28 to 1. This showing ultimately convinced newly elected Gov. George Pardee to sign the bill in 1903.  

At last, on March 2, 1903, Sen. Smith of Los Angeles and Assemblyman Bliss of Alameda, who introduced Senate Bill 251, placed a heap of poppies on the desk of the presiding officer of the Senate. The two legislators had ordered enough poppies to present to each and every senator, but a train wreck the night before caused an adjustment in their plans. Looking up from the pile of poppies, the senators officially announced to their colleagues that Gov. Pardee had signed the bill that morning with these words: “I have the honor to inform your honorable body that I have approved Senate Bill No. 251—An Act to select and adopt the ‘Golden Poppy’ as the State Flower of California.” 

As the bill was read in its entirety, cheers broke out in the chamber. Assemblyman Bliss continued the celebration by reading some verses about the golden poppy, and Sen. Shortridge spoke about the “energetic work” of Sarah Lemmon to convince the Legislature to vote for the poppy bill. It was Sarah who, in the face of gubernatorial opposition, lectured around the state, mailed out informational flyers, and corresponded with legislators and others in support of making the poppy the state flower. 

There were a number of visitors to the chambers the day the bill’s passage was announced, including a smiling Sarah Lemmon, who felt a quiet but full sense of accomplishment. Sarah Lemmon sat in a prominent chair assigned to her in the main aisle. She was asked to give a speech after Sen. Shortridge, and she spoke only briefly, recounting the story of how previous bills had either not passed the Senate or been vetoed by Gov. Gage. Assemblyman Bliss then quoted California eccentric and poet Joaquin Miller’s poem “California’s Cup of Gold,” said to have been inspired by gazing at the beautiful poppy.  


The golden poppy is God’s gold, 

The gold that lifts, nor weighs us down, 

The gold that knows no miser’s hold 

The gold that banks not in the town, 

But singing, laughing, freely spills 

Its hoard far up the happy hills; 

Far up, far down, at every turn,— 

What beggar has not gold to burn! 


Mrs. Lemmon knew that about half of the other states in the union had by now designated state flowers with encouragement from the National Floral Emblem Society. She had completed her 10-year job successfully and was given credit for the triumph in a number of newspaper articles. 

Sen. Shortridge presented Sarah with the gold-mounted eagle’s quill with which Gov. Pardee had signed his name to the bill. Sarah Lemmon’s husband, John, was a member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles; he had procured the feather and Sen. Bliss had fashioned it into the pen with a gold shield fastened on the plume. On the shield was engraved a description of the events of the day. Sarah was honored at a banquet of the Floral Society for her efforts, which garnered wide praise. 

The poppy has now been the state flower of California for 106 years. This title has given the poppy, in the eyes of Californians, a special place in our world. The poppy has struggled to maintain its presence, and its range is severely limited in comparison to its original, naturally ordained range and density.  

Every poppy delivers it message of beauty and sustains its place in this world. The next time you pass a poppy, look long into its petaled palace, for in the folds of that flower lies a long, hard, and beautiful history of survival and perfect grace.