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Papaver somniferum, opium poppy


Second only to Nicotiana in terms of numbers killed, the opium poppy causes death accidentally, when prescribed medication is taken in overdose, to innocent victims, when used as a murder weapon, and as a by product of its use as a substance of abuse.



Meaning of the Name

Usually said to be from the Latin for poppy but it may be a corruption of ‘piper’ meaning ‘pepper’ and ‘aver’ meaning ‘from Africa’.
Sleep producing

Common Names and Synonyms

opium poppy

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

The resin, opium, present throughout the plant but concentrated in the sap of the seed capsule, yields, morphine, codeine and other alkaloids called papaverine, laudanine, narcotine, narceine, amurine, nudaurine and protopine. It is likely that some names refer to the same alkaloid.

Morphine is the best known of the alkaloids together with its derivative diamorphine which is better known as heroin.

Morphine and heroin are narcotic and death due to overdose is the most frequent cause of death. In Europe, around 7,000 to 9,000 people a year die purely from overdose. This does not include those whose drug addicted lifestyle leads them to early deaths from numerous other causes but does include those whose deaths may have been due to adulteration and contamination.

Watch the Video

Click on the arrow to watch a video telling the story of the opium poppy


Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Morphine and heroin are, these days, mostly injected though heroin can be smoked or inhaled. A visitor to the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden was using poppy heads in flower arranging. She needed them dry so put them in the microwave and smelt them when she took them out!

Since its isolation from opium early in the 19th century, morphine has become a popular murder weapon, particularly amongst less reputable members of the medical profession.

The list of morphine murderers starts in 1823 with Dr Edme Castaing and continues through the 19th and 20th centuries with Dr. Robert Buchanan, Jane Toppan, Dr. Robert Clements and Dr Harold Shipman. And those are only the ones who were discovered. The topic of Medical Murderers is the subject of one of John Robertson's most popular talks about poisonous plants.

Folklore and Facts

With a history going back some six thousand years it is hardly surprising that there are many strange beliefs about the powers of the opium poppy. The following is only a selection.

Sacred to Hypnos the Greek god of sleep. Associated with Aphrodite.

Sending a dog to retrieve a piece of Poppy cake would provide the direction from which true love would appear.

Vampires and daemons are compelled to count Poppy seeds if they see them so scattering the seeds in their path when being pursued will bring the pursuit to an anticlimactic conclusion.

Scattering Poppy seeds round the bed on St Andrew's night would provide dreams of a maiden's future husband.

Putting a question about love in an empty seed pod under the pillow would provide the answer in a dream.

Eating a cake made with poppy seeds on New Year's Eve would produce abundance for the following year.

Hide Poppy seeds in a bride's shoe to make her infertile. Soak Poppy seeds in wine for fifteen days then drink this potion for five days whilst fasting to be able to become invisible at will.

In Edison, His Life and Inventions by Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, published in 1910, the authors provide a substantial extract from Edison’s own notes about a strange visitor to the Menlo Park, New Jersey, workshops where Edison conducted most of his work. "At Menlo Park one cold winter night there came into the laboratory a strange man in a most pitiful condition…..He said he was suffering very much, and asked if I had any morphine….. so I got the morphine sulphate. He poured out enough to kill two men….. He said he had taken it for years, and it required a big dose to have any effect. I let him go ahead. In a short while he seemed like another man and began to tell stories…… [H]e finished every combination of morphine with an acid that I had…..Then he asked if he could have strychnine. I had an ounce of the sulphate. He took enough to kill a horse, and asserted it had as good an effect as morphine. When this was gone, the only thing I had left was a chunk of crude opium…………He chewed this up and disappeared."

Edison as drug supplier is not commonly part of science history.

Though now a little dated the word ‘hip’ has been widely used to mean someone who is trendy and, generally, to be admired. The term comes from ‘being on the hip’, that is lying on one’s side in a den smoking opium.

Before WWII, most of the USA’s demand for poppy seeds was met by imports. The war increased the price of poppy seeds from 7 cents a pound to 50 cents. This led to US farmers, especially those in California, planting poppies to take advantage of the high profits to be made. The US Bureau of Narcotics was concerned that some of these poppies might be used for opium production and, as a result, congress passed the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942. This led to a fight between California and the federal government because California law made it possible for anyone of ‘good moral character’ to obtain permission to grow opium poppies. The federal courts ruled, however, that constitutionally the federal government had the power to implement international treaties even if they conflicted with state laws and the 1942 act was based on the International Opium Convention of 1912.

In 2013, a similar battle between state and federal law is possible over the legalisation of personal use of Cannabis sativa, marijuana.

Opium is, generally, a key component of the 'soporific sponge', used to achieve anaesthesia for the performance of surgery. Its precise origin is impossible to determine but one of the first published accounts is found in the 'Antidotarium' of Nicolaus Salernitanus, Nicholas of Salerno, printed in 1470 but which would have to have been written in the 12th century if it is the work of Nicholas. In this recipe, the normally quoted formula of opium, henbane and hemlock is augmented with mulberry juice, mandrake, ivy and lettuce.

A sponge would be soaked in the juice of these plants and then dried to be held in stock until required. Wetting the sponge and placing it over the patient's nose and mouth resulted in the inhalation of the narcotic fumes. It is said that sleep lasting up to 96 hours could be achieved so that the body had the opportunity to recover from the trauma of surgery as well as the patient being insensible during the procedure.

All matters relating to the growing of opium poppies for heroin and its use as a substance of abuse are dealt with in the Phantastica section of The Poison Garden website.