Thick-stemmed annual growing to about 3 ft (1 m). Has many dull green leaves, solitary pink, purple or white flowers, and globe shaped seed capsules.
Habitat & Cultivation
Native to western Asia, opium poppy is now cultivated commercially around the world as the source of morphine and codeine, and as an illegal crop for the production of opium and heroin. During the summer, the seed capsules are cut and the white latex that exudes is gathered the next day and dried.
Opium poppy contains more than 40 opium alkaloids, including morphine (up to 20%), narcotine (about 5%), codeine (about 1%), and papaverine (about 1%). It also contains meconic acid, albumin, mucilage, sugars, resin, and wax.
Many of the opium poppy’s alkaloids have a well-established therapeutic action. Morphine is one of the most powerful analgesics of all, used extensively in conventional medicine to relieve pain, especially in terminal illness. Codeine is a milder analgesic used for headaches and other pain, and in the symptomatic treatment of diarrhea. Opium’s strongly addictive nature is well established.
History & Folklore
Cultivated for its medicinal properties for at least 4,000 years, the opium poppy was introduced to Greece about 3,000 years ago, and from there spread throughout Europe. It was unknown in China until the 7th century CE, and in Japan until the 15th century.
It is mentioned in the Assyrian herbals (c. 1700 BCE), and the Greek physician Dioscorides (40–90 CE) wrote that “a decoction of the leaves and flowerheads if drunk and bathed on the head is unrivaled in inducing sleep. The mashed heads, mixed with flour, make a useful plaster in inflammations and St. Anthony’s fire [erysipelas, a bacterial infection of the skin].”
Medicinal Actions & Uses
Opium (the dried latex) is a potent narcotic, analgesic, and antispasmodic, and has been taken to relieve pain of various kinds. In all the main herbal traditions it is regarded as a powerfully “cold” remedy, reducing physical function and sedating or suppressing nervous activity, pain, and coughs. In view of its addictive nature, opium is mainly used after other less powerful analgesics have failed to bring relief. It is also an effective remedy for acute diarrhea and severe coughs. Pharmaceutical drugs produced from opium poppy include morphine and codeine.
Much research has been done, confirming most of the uses of opium poppy listed above.
See also red poppy (P. rhoeas), Mexican poppy (Argemone mexicana), and California poppy (Eschscholzia californica).
Use opium poppy only under professional supervision. It is subject to legal restrictions in most countries.