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.

| Fall 2015

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.

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