Opium poppy

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style="background:#Template:Taxobox colour;"|Opium Poppy

style="background:#Template:Taxobox colour;" | Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Ranunculales
Family: Papaveraceae
Genus: Papaver
Species: P. somniferum
Binomial name
Papaver somniferum
Polish makowiec cake. The dark filling is made mainly from poppy seeds.
Commercial poppy cultivation in France
Capsule of Papaver somniferum showing latex (opium) exuding from incision

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is the type of poppy from which opium and many refined opiates such as morphine, thebaine, codeine, papaverine, and noscapine are extracted. The binomial name means, loosely, the "sleep-bringing poppy", referring to its narcotic properties. The seeds are important food items, and contain healthy oils used in salads worldwide. The plant itself is valuable for ornamental purposes.


Papaver somniferum is a species of plant with many sub-groups or varieties. Colors of the flower vary widely, as do other physical characteristics such as number and shape of petals, number of pods, production of morphine, etc.

Papaver somniferum Paeoniflorum Group (sometimes called Papaver paeoniflorum) is a sub-type of opium poppy whose flowers are highly double, and are grown in many colors. Papaver somniferum Laciniatum Group (sometimes called Papaver laciniatum) is a sub-type of opium poppy whose flowers are highly double and deeply lobed, to the point of looking like a ruffly pompon.

A few of the varieties, notably the "Norman" and "Przemko" varieties, have "low morphine" content (less than one percent), making them markedly less useful for drug production. Most varieties, however, including those most popular for ornamental use or seed production, have a higher morphine content.[1][2]


In the United States, opium is listed as a Schedule II controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration. In addition, "Opium poppy and poppy straw" are also prohibited.[3] However, this is not typically enforced for poppies grown or sold for ornamental or food purposes.[4][5]

Opium poppy cultivation in the United Kingdom does not need a license, however, a license is required for those wishing to extract opium for medicinal products.[6]

Use as food

The seeds of the poppy are widely used as the popular "poppy seed" found in and on many food items such as bagels, bialys, muffins and cakes. The seeds can be pressed to form poppyseed oil, which can be used in cooking, or as a carrier for oil-based paints. The primary flavor compound is 2-pentylfuran.[7]

Although the amount of opiates in poppy seeds is not enough to produce a narcotic effect in cooking or consumption,[1] the television show MythBusters demonstrated that one could test positive for narcotics after consuming 4 poppy seed bagels. The show Brainiac: Science Abuse had subjects that tested positive with only 2 poppy seed bagels. This situation was parodied on the show Seinfeld.

In India, Iran and Turkey opium poppy is known as Khaskhas or Haşhaş (pronounced: "Hashhash" or in Persian: "Khash Khaash") and is considered a highly nutritious food item, mostly added in dough while baking bread, highly recommended for pregnant women and new mothers.

In Lithuania and Eastern Slovakia a traditional meal is prepared for the Kūčios (Christmas Eve) dinner from the poppy seeds. They are ground and mixed with water; round yeast biscuits (kūčiukai) (slovak - Bobalky) are soaked in the resulting poppy seed 'milk' and served cold.

In Hungary poppy strudel and traditional bejgli is very popular in winter, especially during Christmas.

Poppies as medicine

In both India and Turkey, opium production is used for medicinal purposes, making poppy-based drugs, such as morphine or codeine, for domestic use or exporting raw poppy materials to other countries. The United States buys 80 percent of its medicinal opium from these two countries. However, there is an acute global shortage of opium poppy-based medicines some of which (morphine) are on the World Health Organisation's list of essential drugs as they are the most effective way of relieving severe pain. A recent initiative to extend opium production for medicinal purposes called Poppy for Medicine was launched by The Senlis Council which thinks that Afghanistan could produce medicinal opium under a scheme similar to that operating in Turkey and India (see the Council's recent report "Poppy for Medicine" [2]). The Council proposes licensing poppy production in Afghanistan, within an integrated control system supported by the Afghan government and its international allies, in order to promote economic growth in the country, create vital drugs and combat poverty and the diversion of illegal opium to drug traffickers and terrorist elements. With poppy for medicine projects, opium poppy can be used as a valuable resource.

The British] government has given the go ahead to the pharmaceutical company Macfarlan Smith (a Johnson Matthey company) to cultivate opium poppies in England for medicinal reasons. This move is well received by British farmers, with a major opium poppy field based in Didcot, England. [8]

Ornamental cultivation

Many seed companies and nurseries grow and sell live plants and seeds in many highly beautiful variations. They are also sold dried for dried flower arrangements. This is technically illegal in the United States, but this is not generally enforced unless the plants are being sold for drug production.[1]

Many countries grow the plants; some of which rely heavily on the commercial production of the drug as a major source of income. As an additional source of profit, the same seeds are sold in the culinary trade shortly thereafter, making cultivation of the plant a significant source of income. This international trade in seeds of Papaver somniferum was addressed by a UN resolution "to fight the international trade in illicit opium poppy seeds" on July 28, 1998.


Use of the opium poppy predates written history. Images of opium poppies have been found in ancient Sumerian artifacts (ca. 4000 BC)(southwest of modern Iran). The opium poppy was also known to the ancient Greeks, from whom it gained its modern name of Opium. In historic contexts from Greece remains have been discovered in proto-geometric contexts at sites such as kalapodi and Kastanas.[9]

Opium was used for treating asthma, stomach illnesses, and bad eye sight. The Opium Wars between China and the British Empire took place in the late 1830s when the Chinese attempted to stop the sale of opium by Britain, in China.[9]

Many modern writers, particularly in the nineteenth century, have written on the opium poppy and its effects, notably L. Frank Baum with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater

The French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz used an opium hallucination for the program of his Symphonie Fantastique. In this work, a young artist overdoses on opium and experiences a series of visions of his unrequited love.

Sources and notes

Inline citations

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Poppy law" on Erowid.org
  2. How potent are the major culinary (spicerack) varieties such as McCormick? from poppies.org
  3. dea.gov
  4. Making opium tea
  5. Poppy tea information on Erowid.org
  6. The painkilling fields: England's opium poppies that tackle the NHS morphine crisis, Press release, 2007-15-09.
  7. Yiu H. Hui, Handbook of Food Science, Technology, and Engineering. CRC Press 2006. ISBN 0849398487
  8. Review of undertakings by Macfarlan Smith Limited
  9. 9.0 9.1 History at Poppies International

General references


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