Magical, Mystical and Medicinal

Opium Poppy – Off with Their Heads!

Papaver somniferum L.

Its use is generally contra-indicated and, with greater reason, the use that ordinary people make of its infusion or syrup to make children sleep should be prohibited as on many occasions they fall, due to the alteration of the functions, into a kind of slow intoxication, emaciation and marasmus.

Martín de Argenta y Teixidor, V. 1862. Album de la flora médico-farmacéutica é industrial, indígena y exótica.

The opium poppy, in the Papaveraceae family, is a large herb that can reach up to 1.5 meters in height. The poppy belongs to the Papaver genus which includes approximately 80 species. When the unripe capsules of the opium poppy are cut, they exude a milky latex that turns brown and rubbery when dried. This is opium, which contains numerous alkaloids and has a long history of use that dates back to prehistory.

It is believed that domestication of the opium poppy began in the sixth millennium BCE, in the Mediterranean basin. Capsules and seeds dated from the beginning of the 6th millennium have been found in Italy, and between 5200-5000 BCE the presence of seeds associated with Neolithic communities have been verified in the Iberian Peninsula and NW Europe. Sumerian tablets from 5000 years ago mention the use of opium as a pain reliever and sleep inducer. The properties of opium were also known by Roman and Greek doctors, being mentioned in the 1st century CE by Dioscorides in his De materia medica. Native to Eastern Europe and Western Asia, it spread widely, being cultivated throughout northern and Eastern Europe.

Opium is a powerful narcotic, and was for a long time the most widely used pain killer in Europe. In the XVIII and XIX centuries CE, the dilute opium tincture laudanum become very popular and was commonly taken as a pain reliever and as a sedative. The practice of smoking began later, becoming the preferred method of consumption mixed with tobacco. From the 17th century, opium dens were introduced to China, where they become very popular. A very lucrative trade, ruled by the British, was then established through the East Indian Company, which sold opium in exchange for tea and silk for export to Europe. The company also controlled the illegal trade by licensing local smugglers from whom part of their profit was collected. During the 18th and 19th centuries the number of people addicted to opium increased astronomically, which prompted the Chinese government of the day to ban its consumption and import. The conflict generated by this situation culminated in the so-called ‘opium wars’ between China and Great Britain.

The opium poppy has many active ingredients, several of which are used for medicinal purposes. There are two types of compounds, the first group includes substances such as morphine, codeine and thebaine, which are pain relievers and narcotics affecting the central nervous system. The second group includes alkaloids such as papaverine or noscapine, which act as relaxants for involuntary muscles. Opiates and their derivatives have a huge importance in medicine and are widely used in the pharmaceutical industry. In 1804 morphine was isolated and in 1898 heroin, which is more powerful than opium as a pain killer but is also far more addictive, was produced for the first time.

The opium poppy is currently cultivated legally in some areas for medicinal purposes. It is also cultivated for its seeds, used in baking and its oil is also used industrially.