Papaver somniferum – Opium Poppy

Papaver somniferum - Opium PoppyFAMILY: Papaveraceae

GENUS: Papaver

SPECIES: Somniferum

COMMON NAMES: Opium Poppy, Aguna (Lithuanian), Biligasgase (Kannada), Black Poppy, Guia-guina (Zapotec), Koknar (Persian), Madi-huada (Mapuche, ‘lovely gourd’), Maggona (Estonian), Mak (Slavic), Namtilla (ancient Assyrian, ‘plant of life), Papavero Indiano (Italian), Post (Hindi), Slaapbol (Dutch), Ying Su Ke (Chinese)

Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, is an annual cultivar that grows from three to five feet tall and has white-to-pink, red, or purple flowers.  The plant has a taproot from which the stem develops. The leaves are gray-blue or greenish and are ovate-oblong in shape. The fruit is smooth, round and capsule shaped and can contain up to two thousand tiny seeds, which vary widely in color. A white, milky sap (latex) flows throughout the plant (Ratsch 1998, 403).

The opium poppy is one of the most significant plants in history, having had considerable impact on the human condition and quality of life; both for good and bad. Although it is often believed to have first been cultivated in Asia, the opium poppy’s original home actually lies in northern Italy, southern Germany and Switzerland, where the plant has been used for at least 4,000 years as evidenced by fossil remains of poppy pods found in Neolithic Swiss lake dwellings. There are reports that the plant is also native to southern France, Spain, and northwestern Africa. Opium was said to be consumed by the ancient Egyptians, as well as the Greeks, suggesting it was present in both regions (Grey-Wilson 1995).

TRADITIONAL USES: The opium poppy is one of the most important medicinal plants in the history of pharmaceuticals. It contains a latex – loaded with up to fifty strong alkaloids – which was known in ancient times as “the juice of the plant of forgetting” and as “tears of the moon.” Regarded as the nourishment of divining dragons and as a sleeping and dreaming agent, the Minoan culture used opium to induce ecstatic states for religious ceremonies. The shaman would give oracles and divine the future while under the influence of opium. According to Theocritus, the poppy grew from the tears that Aphrodite shed as she mourned her youthful lover Adonis, hence another of its earliest names, “tears of Aphrodite” (Hartwich 1899 cited in Ratsch 1998, 402).

It is likely that the psychological effects of opium were known to the ancient Sumerians, based on early documentation of a Sumerian tablet (3000 B.C.E.) that described a “plant of happiness,” through the use of their symbols for poppies: hul = “joy” and gil = “plant.”  The first literary notes regarding the opium poppy occurred in Homer’s Illiad and The Odyssey (850 B.C.). Hippocrates (460-357 B.C.) prescribed drinking the juice of the white poppy mixed with the seed of nettle (Ratsch 1998, 402).

The opium poppy was a magical ritual plant among the Germanic tribes. They reportedly planted poppies in fields known as odâinsackr and revered these places convalescent sites where healing miracles would occur. The plant was considered especially sacred to the Germanic god Lollus, whose name suggests the German word lallen (“slur”). It is surmised that Lollus, an oracular god known to “speak in tongues,” may have been slurring due to opium inebriation.  Speaking in tongues, also known as glossalalia, is a type of unconscious flow of speech that has been known since ancient times and appears both in shamanic rituals and modern religious experience (Hasenfratz 1992 cited in Ratsch 1998, 407).

In Greece, the Great Mother goddess Cybele was depicted holding poppy capsules in her hand, as was Hypnos, the god of sleep and the “resolver of cares.”  Hermes (or Mercury) carried the plant in his left hand. Thanatos, or Death, was decorated with garlands of poppies, while Nyx, the goddess of the night, was portrayed with poppies wrapped around her temples. Poppy seeds were an important ritual smoke offering to Hypnos, the god of sleep, during the rituals of the Orphic mystery religion (Ratsch 1998, 407).

Pliny the Elder, the ancient Roman author and naturalist, warned of the dangers of opium. Its use as a medicine created addicts, including the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The great Arabic physician Avicenna died of an unintentional overdose of opium in wine. Later addicts included Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dumas, Edgar Allen Poe, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. So feared was opium addiction that France prohibited the sale of opium in the mid-1700s (Ratsch 1998, 402-403).

Papaver somniferum was documented in China dating back to the fourth century A.D., when famed Chinese physician and surgeon Hua To used preparations of opium with Cannabis indica to help sedate patients before undergoing surgical procedures.  By the fifteenth century, opium was celebrated as the best of all aphrodisiacs in Beijing. Widespread opium use began in China with the introduction of the tobacco trade by the Dutch in the 17th century. The Chinese mixed opium with tobacco and would smoke the mixture in long-stemmed pipes. This practice was adopted throughout the region and resulted in increased opium smoking, both with and without tobacco. By the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company controlled the prime poppy growing regions and dominated the Asian opium trade (Meister 1677 cited in Ratsch 1998, 403).

By the late 1800s, opium was heavily used in China as a recreational drug. The Imperial court banned its use and importation but large quantities were still being smuggled into China by the British. The Emperor petitioned Queen Victoria for help but was ignored. In reaction, the English initiated the Opium War of 1840-1842 purely for economic reasons, which led to far-reaching changes in world politics and the shape of international trade. The influx of opium also lead to widespread addiction and cultural and spiritual devastation in China. The British won the war, and required that the opium trade be allowed to continue. In addition, the Chinese were forced to pay a large settlement and cede Hong Kong to the British Empire (Solomon 1978).

Women in Middle Eastern harems used opium in a drawn-out ritualistic fashion. They would spend their evenings ingesting opium pills and inhaling hookahs filled with opium smoking mixtures, dreaming of far-off worlds beyond their lattice-windowed prisons. They preferred eating opium because the effects lasted longer and the dreams would linger until the sunrise. They consumed so much opium that it produced amnesia and chronic insomnia. Soon they forgot their faraway homes and families, and their lives before the harem. Thus, in order to remember the homes from which they had been taken, they would tell each other stories – at first, a thousand nights of stories but, since even numbers are bad luck, it became one thousand and one (Croutier 1989).

Morphine was first isolated from opium in 1805 by the German pharmacist Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner, who named the bitter white crystalline alkaloid morphium after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. This was the first pure, active plant substance ever to be extracted and commercialized. The invention revolutionized the pharmaceutical industry (Ratsch 1998, 403).

TRADITIONAL PREPARATIONS: Opium poppy latex is collected by piercing the immature seed pod with a knife and then scraping off the coagulated latex into a container. When this powerful latex is exposed to air, it coalesces into the dark brown, dry, sticky mass known as opium, derived from the Greek word opos, which means “plant juice” (Ratsch 1998, 404-405).

Opium may be smoked as it is, or may be prepared in a form known as “chandu”.  One way to make chandu is to dissolve the opium in boiling water and then filter and make a concentrate. This concentrate is roasted until it becomes brittle, and is then extracted in first cold and then warm water.  The extracts are concentrated and then packed into sealed clay jars to age until ready for smoking. Opium may also be decocted in water and drunk, although dosage must be monitored carefully in this case (Ratsch 1998, 405).

Laudanum is a tincture of opium that uses wine or other alcohol as a solvent and that also contains saffron, cinnamon, and cloves. The laudanum used in modern medicine is opium dissolved in 70% alcohol and used in doses of 0.3-2ml (Wagner 1985 cited in Ratsch 1998, 406).

MEDICINAL USES: Papaver somniferum was used in ancient Egypt, Greece, Germany, and many other parts of the world as a means of inducing sleep, calming nervous anxiety, and treating inflammatory troubles, diarrhea, and coughing. By the 1850s, pure opium latex alkaloids, rather than the earlier crude opium preparations, were commonly prescribed for the relief of aches and pains, coughs, and diarrhea. This period also saw the invention and introduction of the hypodermic syringe. The seeds of P. somniferum have also shown some anticancer properties (Ratsch 1998, 409).

TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Opium contains morphine, codeine, noscapine, papaverine, and thebaine. All but thebaine are used clinically as analgesics to reduce pain without a loss of consciousness. Thebaine is without analgesic effect but is of great pharmaceutical value due to its use in the production of semisynthetic opioid morphine analogues such as oxycodone, dihydromorphenone, and hydrocodone (Ratsch 1998, 410).

P. somniferum is a narcotic, sedative, analgesic, euphoriant, antispasmodic, and many other things.  Higher doses may lead to nausea, vomiting, thirst, cold skin, and eventual sleep, coma, or death through respiratory and circulatory depression.  A lethal dose can be as low as 300mg of opium for some people, although tolerance varies widely among individuals.  Continued use leads to physical and psychological addiction. The effects of opium are often described as blissful, soothing, erotic, and dream-like in nature. They may last up to eight hours at almost constant strength (Ratsch 1998, 410-411).



Croutier, A.L. Harem: The World Behind the Veil. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989.

Grey-Wilson, C. Poppies: The Poppy Family in the Wild and in Cultivation. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1995.

Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.

Solomon, R. “The Evolution of Opiate Use in China: The Origins of the Illicit International Trade” 10, no. 1 (1978): 43–49.

Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.

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