Opium Poppies (Papaver Somniferum)
Opium Poppy Plant
Opium Poppy Plant

Origin, Background and History

The opium poppy is a Schedule II narcotic, meaning it has a high potential for abuse but it can still be prescribed, usually as a painkiller (Stewart 2009). The actual origin (time and place) of the opium poppy is unknown, but it likely appeared in central Europe during the late Bronze Age, and then brought into the southern Mediterranean region. Later, the opium poppy spread to the Oriental region, probably by Arab traders (Anderson 2001). It is generally considered native to Europe and western Asia.

Papaver Somniferumis commonly known as the breadseed poppy, peony poppy, Turkish poppy, and the "hens and chicks" poppy (Stewart 2009). The Latin translation means "sleep-bringing poppy", named such for its sedative qualities (ThinkQuest 2000). Papaver Somniferum have large flowers with up to 8 petals, but some species only have 4-5. The petals are red or white and are easily identifiable by a dark spot at the base of the petal. There are two main varieties, "Persian White", which has pure white petals, and "Danish Flag", which has a combination of red and white petals. The plants can grow up to 5 feet tall. They have green, toothed leaves, which can be as large as 6 inches wide. The seed pods are globe shaped, but some poppies that are native to the United States have smaller, elongated seed pods. The seeds are generally grey-blue or light tan. The grey-blue seeds are generally used in baking.

Papaver Somniferum has been cultivated in the Middle East since about 3400 BC. It is widely grown in southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Turkey. It is widely understood that opium was brought to the United States by Chinese immigrants who were working on the first transcontinental railroads. The Golden Triangle, where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet, is one of the most infamous areas of the world for opium poppies (Anderson 2001). It is found and cultivated in temperate climates with lots of sun and rich garden soil, and grows best at about 3,300 feet elevation (Anderson 2001, Stewart 2009). The leaves of the opium poppy are smooth and bluish green. The petals are very large and either pink, purple, white, or red. The most recognizable parts of the plant are the seedpods, which are very fat and bluish green. When the seedpod of a newly harvested poppy is opened, a milky sap will ooze out. The sap is the part that produces opium, which morphine, codeine, and other opiates for painkillers are extracted from (Stewart 2009).

Throughout history, Papaver Somniferum has had many different uses. It has been mentioned as a painkiller as far back as 460 BC, and as a recreational drug since the Middle Ages. In the 17th Century, it was an ingredient in a medication called laudanum, a type of painkiller. However, the two most widely known uses of opium poppies are morphine and heroin. As early as the beginning of the 19th Century, doctors were able to extract morphine from the plant to use as a painkiller, something that is still done today. In 1898, the drug company Bayer introduced the most powerful extract, known as heroin. Heroin was originally sold by Bayer as a cough syrup for both children and adults, but was taken off the market around 1910, and was eventually banned in the United States in 1923. (Stewart 2009).

Today, possessing opium poppy seeds are legal because they are a popular food ingredient. Poppy seeds can be found in many bakery products such as bagels or muffins, and are also used in poppy seed oil. Possessing opium poppy plants or poppy straw is extremely illegal, though rarely enforced. In the mid-1990s, the Drug Enforcement Authority asked seed companies to voluntarily stop selling the seeds in the catalogs, over a fear that availability of the seeds would contribute to domestic production of heroin. However, it would take an annual harvest of at least 10,000 poppy plants to supply an average heroin user for a year, and most seed companies ignored the request. Though the seeds are have no harmful effects in small quantities, eating some may cause a positive result in a drug test. (Stewart 2009).


Heroin, a derivative of opium, was used originally as a medical remedy for a wide variety of problems, such as insomnia and pain. In 1898, Bayer introduced the drug for commercial sale as a non-addictive alternative to morphine and as a cough medicine, but quickly took it off the market when research revealed heroin metabolizes into morphine in the human body. Heroin was banned in the United States in 1923 and is now a Schedule I substance, meaning it is a crime to possess it (HeroinInfo 2010).

Despite it's illegality, heroin use became an epidemic in the mid-20th Century. By the time laws passed making heroin illegal, a market for heroin in the United States already existed, and there were an estimated 200,000 heroin addicts in the U.S. by 1925. The market for heroin still exists today, not only in the US, but globally. According to estimates by the United Nations, there are over 50 million frequent users of heroin all over the world, ranging from 15 to 64 years old. (Narconon 2013).

Heroin trafficking is prevalent all over the world, with the greatest amount coming from Afghanistan. According to a 2004 survey conducted by the United Nations, Afghanistan is credited for manufacturing 87% of the world's heroin. Opium manufacturing in Afghanistan has only grown over the past years, and it is thought that the war in Afghanistan has only facilitated production and trade. It is estimated that nearly 3 million Afghans are connected to opium production. (HeroinInfo 2010).

external image map-04.gif

Heroin enters the brain quickly, but it slows down reaction time, memory and thought process. In small doses, a user will experience a sense of warmth and well-being. In larger doses, the user will feel relaxed, disconnected from reality, and drowsy. Heroin affects receptors in the brain that are critical for blood pressure and breathing, but also the part of the brain that produces euphoria, causing physical and psychological addictions. Heroin is mostly addictive because users develop a tolerance, needing larger and larger amounts to achieve the same effects. Users will also start to crave the drug, and if they do not use it they will experience withdrawal that can be painful and even dangerous. Users can become addicted after using heroin for as little as 3 consecutive days. By using heroin in larger quantities and more often, the potential for overdose and death increases exponentially (HeroinInfo 2010).
external image 220px-Short-term_effects_of_heroin.png

Heroin can be injected into a muscle, or straight into a vein. It can also be smoked or snorted as a powder through the nose.

Other Modern Uses of Opium Poppies

Opium poppy plants are used in gardens all over the world, usually for their harmless, aesthetic qualities. However, the plant's milky sap, also known as it's latex, has many different uses for humans.

Morphine was discovered by doctors in the early 19th Century. It is a powerful painkiller, narcotic, and stimulant (Anderson 2001). Though it is strongly addicting, it is essential in modern medicine. It is in a class of medications known as opiate (narcotic) analgesics, and works by changing the way the body senses pain. It comes as a tablet, a liquid solution, an extended-release tablet, or a sustained-release capsule. Morphine has a high potential for addiction because tolerance and psychological dependence can develop very quickly, and especially over sustained use. The most common side effects are dizziness, lightheadedness, drowsiness, nausea, and vomiting (National Institutes of Health 2013).

Morphine as a liquid solution
Morphine as a liquid solution
Codeine is the most extensively used extraction from opium poppy plants. It is the least habit-forming of the opioid family, and is used to reduce pain and suppress coughing. It is commonly used in perscription drugs, such as cough medicines, and often combined with aspirin or acetaminophen to relieve pain. It suppresses coughing or the cough reflex by affecting the cough center in the medulla in the brain. Because of it's addictive qualities, it is only availably by prescription. The most common side effects of Codeine are drowsiness, nausea and vomiting (Pasternak, 2001).

Codeine as a tablet
Codeine as a tablet
Papaverine was discovered in 1848. It is most often used to improve blood flow in patients with circulation problems, but can also be used to treat impotence in men. It works by relaxing the blood vessels so that blood can flow more easily to the heart and throughout the body. Though it is used to treat patients with high blood pressure, it cannot cure it. Papaverine comes as a tablet, a solution for injection, and an extended-release capsule, and can also be habit-forming. The most common side effects are flushing, sweating and headache (National Institutes of Health 2013).

Papaverine as a liquid solution
Papaverine as a liquid solution

The only legal uses of Papaver Somniferum are in the form of poppy seeds. Poppy seeds are used in food products in various ways. Whole poppy seeds are used as a spice and a decoration in and on top of various baked goods, such as muffins, bagels, cakes, and hamburger or hot dog buns. Poppy seeds can also be ground up with butter or milk and sugar to create a paste. This poppy seed paste is used in rolls, croissants, and as fillings in pastries. (Wikipedia 2013)

Poppy seeds on bagels
Poppy seeds on bagels

Poppies as Symbols of Remembrance

Internationally, poppies are famous as a symbol of remembrance as a result of the poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae. In Canada, the Royal Canadian Legion suggests that poppies be worn on the left lapel, or as close to the heart as possible. They can also be seen on cars and on tables during the poppy season. British celebrity Simon Cowell is known for wearing a poppy that is decorated with crystals and costs an estimated $135, even though poppies themselves only cost about 5 cents to make. In America, people usually wear poppies the week before Memorial Day, which was originally called Decoration Day (The Star, 2011).

In Flanders Fields

Flanders Poppy on the First World War battlefields.
Flanders Poppy on the First World War battlefields.

by John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


Anderson, Edward F.. "Opium Poppy." Plant Sciences. 2001. Retrieved April 21, 2013 from Encyclopedia.com:http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3408000213.html

BestDrugInfo. "Heroin drug use and how heroin affects the body." HeroinInfo. 2010. Retrieved April 21, 2013 from HeroinInfo.org: http://heroininfo.org/heroin_use.html

Garden Guides. "How to Identify Papaver Somniferum." GardenGuides. 2010. Retrieved April 25, 2013 from GardenGuides.com: http://www.gardenguides.com/75792-identify-papaver-somniferum.html

Narconon International. "History of Heroin." Narconon International. 2013. Retrieved April 21, 2013 from narconon.org:

Oracle ThinkQuest. "Poppy" Poisonous Plants and Animals. 2000. Retrieved April 21, 2013 from library.thinkquest.org:

Pasternak, Gavril W.. "Codeine." Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol, and Addictive Behavior. 2001. Retrieved April 22, 2013 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3403100122.html

Toronto Starr Library Staff. "11 little-known facts about poppies." The Star. 2011. Retrieved April 25, 2013 from TheStar.com: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2011/11/03/11_littleknown_facts_about_poppies.html

U.S. National Library of Medicine. "Morphine Oral." Medline Plus. 2013. Retrieved April 21, 2013 from NLM.NIH.gov:

U.S. National Library of Medicine. "Papaverine." Medline Plus. 2013. Retrieved April 21, 2013 from NLM.NIH.gov:

Wikipedia. "Poppy seed." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2013. Retrieved April 21, 2013 from en.wikipedia.org: