Plants which changed the world; opium poppies

Opium poppies give us codeine and morphine, which can be altered to create heroin. They are four foot tall with fragile flowers which can be red, white or purple and are very pretty.

Opium is gathered from the skin of the seed pod, after the petals have fallen off but before the seed head dries up. They are cut and a milky white latex oozes out. This is the opium and before processing it contains between 7 and 15% morphine. It is a labour intensive crop which requires a lot of work and most farmers receive little of the profits from further down the production chain.

They have been cultivated in the near and middle east since at least 4000BC, with some people arguing it’s been used for over 10,000 years. By 3500 BC, the Sumerians who occupied Mesopotamia were calling it the plant of joy, using it as a mind altering substance and a medicine as well as trading it with other civilisations. The Romans took opium recreationally and in Arabia, because of the Islamic prohibition on alcohol, opium was used socially. As people began to move around and trade more, opium was taken into China where it was used medicinally from the 8th century to the 18th when pleasure took over. As we’ll see when we look at tea, this had a huge impact on the country.

“Take opium, mandragora and henbane in equal parts and mix with water,” a 12th-century treatise advised doctors. “When, you want to saw or cut a man,” it continued, “dip a rag in this, put it to his nostrils and he will sleep so deep that you may do what you wish.”
A history of morphine

In the early 19th century, a German pharmacist managed to isolate the active ingredient from opium and called it “morphine” after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams and sleep who brought messages and prophesies from the gods to mortals through the medium of dreams*.

In 1856, Britain received £9 million of produce from China, including tea, but £6.7 million of this was paid for in opium or in silver which was linked to the opium trade. This was after the first opium war and on the cusp of the second and this trade would undermine china’s social and economic life as well as fuel corruption and smuggling.  A high price to pay for a cup of tea…

Whilst addition to opium was known about in the 17th and 18th century, it was largely ignored and wasn’t until 1868 that Britain first attempted to curb opium use. By 1874 heroin had been discovered and was being marketed as a none addictive alternative to codeine by 1898…

Use of opiates tended to begin (and still does) with an illness or injury which in time led to addiction and recreational use. For example, Wilkie Collins lived in pain due to rheumatism and used opium to provide relief and help him sleep. Other writers also used it including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who famously wrote Kubla Khan which he himself said was a description of “a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium, taken to check a dysentery.” Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning suffered from intense pain in her spine and neck and began taking opium at an early age.

Today, opium poppies are grown legally in India, Turkey and Australia for the medical trade and illegally in Burma, Afghanistan and Columbia. In fact in 2010, Afghanistan produced 90% of the world’s illegal opium. As I mentioned, opium is a labour intensive crop and with so many farmers growing it in Afghanistan, buyers can keep the prices low. In 2002, 1kg of opium was $300 for the farmers, $800 for the Afghan buyer and $16,000 on the streets of Europe before conversion into heroin. For context, each poppy plant gives only a couple of grams of raw opium.

The trade in illegal opium means smuggling, bribing law enforcement, corruption and obviously the effects of use and addition for the end user.  According to the poison garden, opium poppies are second only to tobacco in terms of numbers of deaths.  It can cause death accidentally, when prescribed medication is taken in overdose, as a result of abuse and as a murder weapon.

Remember I’m talking here about illegal use.  I want to be clear I’m not saying opium equals bad.  It’s far more complicated than that.  I use opium daily for my pain but it’s of a regulated dose, carefully monitored and hopefully isn’t cut with corruption or rat poison.

*My own use of morphine and my weird dreams mean this is something I want to return to through creative writing



The poppy with it’s bright colours is the flower of August.  A summertime plant.  A flower of imagination and dreaminess that comes with the heat of the sun.  A lazy day in a field with a gentle breeze and the heady scent of flowers.  Despite this, the poppy is also dedicated to nocturnal deities and is a herb of the moon.  An image comes to mind of a person, spending their days in amongst the wildflowers, cloud gazing and day dreaming until the day has turned to night and the moon shines down.

This plant is known mostly for morphine and heroin.  I was in a car with some friends about ten years ago.  When we went past a field of bright red poppies, the driver made us all wind up the windows.  She was terrified that the scent would enter the car and we’d all fall asleep.  I had never heard this before and it’s not at all going to happen.  The red poppies which appear in the UK fields as weeds are not opium poppies.

The morphine poppy, Papaver somniferum, contains powerful medicine and has been used for a very long time as an analgesic and a narcotic, both in healing and recreationally.  In 3000BC, Sumerians revered the poppy as a magical plant.  Later, in ancient Egypt, doctors would advise their patients to ease their pain by eating poppy seeds.

The use of the opium poppy to create both morphine and heroin brings to mind the healing/harming spectrum.  This medicine could ease your pain or bring you oblivion, it could aid you or it could kill you.  It’s all in the dose.  This is true of so many things in life and is a caution about excess.

Whilst we focus heavily on the narcotic properties of the plant, they are used in many ways.  Simply as an ornamental plant, through to cooking.  Poppy seeds are rich in oils, carbohydrates, calcium and protein.  Poppy oil can be used as a cooking oil or as an ingredient in cakes and breads.  Parts of the poppy can even be found in cosmetics and paints.

But perhaps the other most recognised use of the poppy, besides opium, is as a symbol of remembrance.  After the first world way, the poppy was used to honour soldiers who had died during the war.  But long before this, poppies were associated with death.  In Greek and Roman mythology, poppies were used as offerings to the dead.  They were used on tombstones to symbolise eternal sleep.  Both their medicinal properties and their colour led to this usage.  The sedative nature of the opium poppy and the blood red colour of common poppies made it a flower of sleep, peace and death.

None of the above should be considered medical advice, do not eat anything unless you’ve done your research.  Plants go by different names in different places and have different properties at different times of year.  Some of the possible uses of this plant have come from folklore and should not be taken as fact.