The History of the Opium Poppy

The opium poppy has a long history of medicinal use, although now it is mainly cultivated as a striking ornamental.

Black Swan poppy

BLACK SWAN POPPY Tall and lanky, poppies sway in breezes in the garden, but behind their beautiful flowers, we find a generous provider of nutrition as well as a powerful source of medication.

Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

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The opium poppy has been a friend to humanity for thousands of years, yet has always exacted a high price for its favor. The generous gifts of this legendary plant include its stunningly beautiful flowers, delicious and nutritious seeds, and milky sap that yields the most effective painkillers known to medicine. On the sinister side of the relationship must be reckoned the dangers of addiction and death due to accidental overdose.

The botanical name for opium poppy is Papaver somniferum. The moniker was conferred by none other than Carl Linnaeus himself in his Genera Plantarum in 1753. The genus name, Papaver, is the Latin word for poppy. Somniferum means bringer of sleep in Latin. Since opium when smoked did and does often induce sleep, it is clear that at least in Linnaeus’ mind, the psychoactive properties were the salient point about the plant.

The plant is an hardy annual, preferring rather cool and dry conditions. The often intensely colorful, enormous flowers may be single, semi-double, or so fully double as to take on a spherical form. The seeds, about the size of a pinhead, are nutritious and may be ground into flour. They also contain a high fraction of oil, for which they may be pressed. But it is the sap of the opium poppy, exuded as a milky latex from scores made in the immature seed capsules, which has been humankind’s primary objective in growing the poppy. For this sap, collected and dried, is opium. And for opium, wars have been fought, much money has changed hands, people have been imprisoned, been killed and died inadvertently by their own hand.

The destiny of the plant in question has been bound up with our own for thousands of years. In a Neolithic site in a cave in southern Spain, intact seed capsules of opium poppy were found in burial goods of the dead. The center of origin had long been held to be in Asia Minor, but it is possible that it originated in western Europe and North Africa instead, because there is an indigenous species there, P. setigerum, which may be the wild ancestor or a subspecies of P. somniferum. Thus the latter species may be considered a cultigen, meaning a cultivated species that evolved through direct human efforts as a result of cultivation and selection by the generations of farmers.

The plant may have been used originally as a food. The diffusion of the sleep-bearing poppy can be traced chronologically as a steady expansion eastward. It is unknown just where or how it was first employed as an analgesic or a narcotic. By about 3400 BCE the poppy was known in Sumeria. Its psychoactive properties must by then have been well known, because one of their cuneiform clay tablets gives its name: Hul Gil, the Joy Plant. Tablets found at Nippur, a Sumerian spiritual center south of Baghdad, described the collection of poppy juice in the morning and its use in production of opium. By 3000 BCE poppies were grown by Bronze Age farmers in the Lake Dwellings in Switzerland, where it is known that the seed was pressed for its oil or ground into flour for inclusion in breads. The plant spread eastward from there in the period around 1600-1200 BCE, apparently traveling along the tin and amber trade routes that were vigorous despite this early date. Opium trade is documented in Egypt from around 1300 BCE. Trading partners included all of the eastern Mediterranean peoples of the time such as the Phoenicians and Minoans. The latter, at around this time, made depictions of an apparent goddess whose crown included three opium pods.

Mention of opium by classical writers and physicians came hundreds of years later. The earliest indisputable reference is from Theophrastus, 3rd century BCE. By Roman times opium was available in the marketplaces of towns throughout the empire. Celsus, a Roman who translated Greek medical texts and died about 50 CE, recommended opium for use before surgical procedures. A few decades later, Discorides wrote in his De Materia Medica of the opium poppy, and described how the sap was harvested and handled for opium. The Roman-era authorities all refer to works now lost, some dating to at least 400 years earlier. So it is clear that these facts were known at least as early as the 5th century BCE.

Pliny the Elder warned of the dangers of addiction; Dioscorides disagreed. But recourse to opium was unavoidable as it was far and away the preeminent remedy for pain. In a time of limited medical skill, prescribing for pain might be the only truly effective treatment a physician could offer. Also, the Romans were adventuresome and rather skillful at surgery, and anaesthesia and pain relief are crucial to that branch of medicine. Addiction was a common side-effect, claiming at least one Roman emperor and no doubt many other people, famous or obscure, over the centuries.

Opium continued its eastward spread, aided greatly by Arab traders and physicians in the early Middle Ages, spreading through their agency into India, reaching China by the 9th century CE.

Opium disappears from European historical records for a couple of centuries. That was the period of the Inquisition, and anything out of the ordinary could be prone to being associated with the devil.

Opium reappeared in Europe during the Reformation, starting with the Portuguese around 1500. In 1527, Paracelsus introduced “laudanum.” His formula of this famous product included opium, citrus juice, and quintessence of gold. The origin of the name laudanum is somewhat obscure but, as the name persisted through Victorian times (although the formula evolved), clearly general agreement assessed its value very highly.

In 1606 ships were chartered by Queen Elizabeth I to seek out the finest Indian opium to be brought back to England. Nicholas Culpeper wrote in The English Physician, (1652) that opium was a good remedy for menstrual cramps, gout and toothache, and recommended it as a sedative: “The Garden Poppy heads, with seeds made into a Syrup, is frequently and to good effect used to procure rest and sleep in the sick and weak.” He also expressed frustration with the suppliers of his day: “[O]nely for lucre of money they cheat you, and tell you it is a kinde of Tear, or some such like thing that drops from Poppies when they weep, and that is some where beyond the Sea, I know not where ...”

And in the 1670s Thomas Sydenham created his formula for laudanum, tincture of opium, which became a basis for more modern formulations to this day. Sydenham wrote: “Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.”

In the 19th century the infamous Opium Wars were fought between Great Britain and imperial China, in 1839-41 and 1856. Seeking to expand the market and secure Chinese tea at one stroke, British corporate interests including the British East India Company put pressure upon the Chinese government to allow importation of opium, produced abundantly in India. Knowing the dangers, the Emperor resisted; the English fought and won two offensive wars, eventually forcing the Chinese to capitulate, allowing unrestricted importation of the Indian opium, and ceding Hong Kong to the English as well. Under the benign gaze of the British government, the East India Company may well have been the largest drug cartel in history.

It was principally during the 19th century that opium began to be studied scientifically. In 1803

Friedrich Sertuerner of Paderborn, Germany, isolated the active ingredient of opium by dissolving it in acid, then neutralizing it with ammonia. This resulted simultaneously in the discovery of morphine and of the whole category of organic molecules known as alkaloids. Chemistry was then becoming rapidly more sophisticated, and over the next few decades a series of previously unknown substances were identified and named, including codeine in 1832 by Pierre Jean Robiquet, and heroin, isolated in 1895 by Heinrich Dreser working for the Bayer Company of Elberfeld, Germany. It was during the same century that western intellectuals such as Keats, Shelly, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning began to experiment with recreational drug abuse. De Quincey’s influential Confessions of an English Opium Eater was published in 1821. Use of opium spread quickly through China after the Opium Wars; when coolies were imported into the United States to work the California gold fields and, later, build railroads, they brought the drug, and the habit, with them. Medicinal use of opium, often in various preparations of laudanum, remained a standard remedy for pain relief. When the US Civil War was fought, with its enormous numbers of injured on both sides, opium was widely used, and again addiction was rampant among veterans.

Between opium dens in San Francisco and other US frontier towns, experimentation by the intellectual elite and the widespread use of laudanum in innumerable patent medicines, the 19th century was a very free and easy time, so far as opium and opiates went. Reaction was inevitable and probably necessary, and in the United States it took the form of the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.

The Harrison Act, passed in an atmosphere of hysteria, deeply tinged by racist fervor, was designed to regulate and tax opium and cocaine, but the agenda was to discourage their use, because it restricted importation. Subsequent legislation, including the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, maintained opium’s and opiates’ contraband status. And criminal penalties increased drastically.

While the legal status of the refined drugs has been very clear, that of the plants is actually rather ambiguous: since the plants contain opium, and opium is a controlled substance, possession of the plants is technically illegal. However, the plant was in widespread cultivation as an ornamental long before the Harrison Act and since no great rush of cottage-industry opium production ever materialized, no systematic attempt was ever made to enforce the letter of the law. Sporadic informal attempts have been made to discourage seed companies from offering the seed. Yet possession of the seeds is not illegal.

Even the government websites seem caught up in this ambivalence: after a short description on the origin and history of opium and the opium poppy, the Drug Enforcement Agency Museum’s page concludes with a description of the magnificent flowers and a photo of seed packets!

Authorities in general have seemed content to ignore opium poppies grown for ornamental use, or to dry and harvest the pods for seed, preferring to discourage cultivation through a policy of disinformation.

The legal situation is very confused and confusing. Prosecution for mere possession of the plants is rare, virtually non-existent. Intent is key in this regard: if production or attempted production of opium can be proven, or even if intent to collect the sap should come to the attention of the authorities, they could well make a case for the charge of possession or manufacturing a controlled substance. Penalties, while they vary at the state level, can be very severe. A fascinating piece on the legalities of this subject is Michael Pollan’s “Opium Made Easy”, originally published in Harper’s in 1997.

Legal concerns notwithstanding, opium poppies are easy to grow (as evidenced by their cultivation in diverse lands around the globe) and come in staggering diversity of colors and types. They come in many colors: white, pink, lavender, deep purple, and numerous shades of red. The foliage is unusual, too — a cool blue-green, rather succulent looking (for a poppy). Each petal presents a translucent, crinkled appearance, reminiscent of crepe paper. The flowers are usually very large, 3-5 inches in diameter. If single, each petal is large and clearly visible, but the more fully double a bloom is, the more intricate its appearance. The margins of the leaves are often of complicated, rather angular shape. The leaves can be very smooth to slightly prickly, but less so than other common poppy types in cultivation. During most of the plants’ growth cycle they remain fairly low to the ground. Up to this stage they superficially resemble cabbage plants, mainly because of their blue-green color. When ready to bloom, however, the plants shoot up to 3 or 4 feet in height, or rather, they send up elongated flower stems. Up, up rise the prickly, elongated spheres that are the flower buds, supported by their wiry stems, waving gently in the warm, hopefully gentle breezes of late spring. Finally, the prickly outer covers split open and each enormous flower unfurls, its sumptuous color glowing against the fine greens that usually fill the garden at that time. Each flower graces the world for only a few days; then the petals wither and fall away, leaving a cylindrical seed capsule, which gradually swells as its seeds mature, then dries. The pods can be harvested for use in arrangements, or if allowed to remain in place, the stems will eventually bend or break and the seeds will spill out from the top of each pod, just like salt from a salt shaker. Thrifty gardeners will gather the drying pods, shake out the seed for use on breads or pastries, and lay aside the pods, storing them until needed for a dry arrangement to chase away winter blahs.

These poppies have a reputation for being difficult to grow, but they are really quite simple to raise. The only tricky part is getting the timing right. Opium poppies like to finish growth and bloom into warm weather, but they make most of their growth in cooler conditions. In most climates, sowing at the time of last spring frost is far too late. Opium poppies should be sown much earlier. In fact, in the warmer sections of the country, at least USDA Zone 5 and southward, opium poppy can be sown in late autumn for bloom the following year. The young seedlings are quite hardy. The best stand I ever grew was sown during a January thaw in the Missouri Ozarks. Last frost there isn’t until sometime in April, but the tiny plants and any unsprouted seed survived the coldest months of our winter and resumed growth as soon as temps got a little bit mild — about the same time as the garlic sprouted, which is usually very early indeed. Light snows in March didn’t harm the young plants a bit. In April they made good growth and bloomed in late May, making a fabulous show!

Opium poppies grow best in full sun and light soil, but will succeed in heavier soil so long as it possesses excellent drainage. Ordinary fertility is adequate — these are not heavy feeders. The tiny seed is probably best broadcast over finely-worked soil, and gently pressed into the surface. Some gardeners like to mix the seed with fine sand and sprinkle the mixture — this method makes it easier to get adequate space between the seeds.

Seeds may sprout within a few weeks, but hopefully the planting is done close enough to really cold weather that the seedlings don’t grow too large — smaller seedlings may be more hardy. Once growth ceases, there is nothing more to do until spring. I never mulched my beds, but if a mulch is applied it should be very fine to avoid burying the seedlings.

When warmer weather arrives and plants begin to grow, weed control may be necessary. This could be the hardest part of growing these beauties, because the weeds must be removed before they outgrow the poppies, and the latter have delicate roots that should not be disturbed, so weeding must progress gently. Best approach is to be diligent, pull any weeds as soon as they appear, and apply a mulch when the weeds are at bay and the poppies are big enough to work around. Thinning of your poppy stand can be done at the same time. The goal is to have individual plants, spaced about 12 inches from any neighbors. You could also grow them in straight rows, doing most weed control with a hoe as for any other crop. Soon the plants grow large enough that the leaves fill in fairly solid, shading most of the ground and limiting further germination of weed seeds for the remainder of the season.

If the timing was right, the plants are reaching full size just as the weather is beginning to get warm enough to hint of summer. At that point the plants send up their flower heads, each plant making several if well grown. The show lasts for a couple of weeks or so. Then the petals drop and the pods remain, developing for several more weeks until they begin to dry. At that point, they may be harvested and the spent plants removed to the compost pile or turned under. The show is over. Until next year!


Tasmanian Poppy

Tasmania, in Australia, is the location of one of the world’s largest crops of legal opium poppies, which are grown to exacting standards for the pharmaceutical industry. The Tasmanian poppy has been the subject of modern breeding to enhance production. The Tasmanian crop annually supplies about 85% of the world’s supply of thebaine, used in the production of OxyContin, as well as over half of the world’s morphine and codeine.

Pharmaceutical firms which purchase the crop are pressuring the Tasmanian government to allow genetic engineering to further manipulate the products the poppies can produce. Genetically modified crops have been subject to two successive five-year bans in Tasmania, but the current ban expires in November. The companies are unclear about just what genetic modifications they would pursue, but Round-up Ready is one distinct possibility.


Not All Poppies Are Opium Poppies

Opium poppies are a single species, more or less, Papaver somniferum, although seedsmen sometimes sell plants as P. bracteatum, or P. paeoniflorum, but these are possibly subspecies of P. somniferum. If you want to enjoy the splendor of poppies in your garden without worrying about a visit from the law, there are plenty of other types for the garden:

Iceland Poppy (P. nudicaule) — A biennial or short-lived perennial in amazingly cheerful pastel tones, including bright yellow.

Oriental Poppy (P. orientale) — A true perennial that makes a big, prickly mound in most climates, with blooms in orange, brilliant scarlet, or milder tones of salmon, pink or white.

Shirley Poppy (P. rhoeas) — A hardy annual or biennial that reseeds itself freely in most situations. Flower stems to about 3 feet tall. Looks rather like a miniature opium poppy except that the color range is different. Flowers in bright pinks, warm reds and white.

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) — Annual. Close poppy relative that is much smaller. Comes in orange but improved types may be red, pink or white, and are often double. May self-sow.

Prickly Poppy (Argemone albiflora) — Annual to biennial that produces 3- to 4-foot stems, topped by enormous flowers in pure snowy white.

Eastern Horned Poppy (Dicranostigma franchetianum) — Annual to short-lived perennial. Single flowers in brilliant clear yellow.


Deaths from Poppy Tea

Ingesting poppy tea sounds innocuous but is never entirely safe. Levels of poppy alkaloids can vary significantly, and when drunk they are slow to take effect, making it difficult for users to gage their degree of intoxication. The practice is especially dangerous with the Tasmanian varieties. The Tasmanian poppy has been subject to intensive breeding for a half century, and certain compounds are produced in it at much higher levels than in ordinary varieties. There have been several deaths resulting from opiate overdose in persons drinking tea made from the poppies, which has caused concern in Tasmania and beyond (since much poppy seed available in grocery store spice aisles is Tasmanian, and seeds and plants may be available over the internet.) It is possible that other strains of poppy may be equally lethal, since they have been bred for flower production and not with attention paid to the potency or composition of the sap. The message is clear: DON’T DRINK POPPY TEA — the risks are just too high!


Randel A. Agrella has overseen rare seed production at Baker Creek since 2005. He writes and lectures extensively, and owns and operates AbundantAcres.net, which has grown and shipped strictly heirloom, chemical-free veggie starts and plants, since 2004. He recently relocated to Maine, and you can follow the development of his organic micro-farm, Parsnippity Farm, on Facebook.