Plant 136

Papaver somniferum L. (Papaveraceae)


Opium poppy

The opium poppy is a medicinal plant, the dried resin (opium) of which has been exploited for millennia. Across Eurasia, in the pre-anaesthetic era, opium was one of the few effective pain reliefs available. Opium poppy remains have been reported from Neolithic, and Bronze Age and Iron Age sites across Europe.

The opium poppy is indigenous to Asia Minor and is an annual herb with blue-green, usually hairless, leaves and white sap. When the fruits ripen and dry they open by a series of small pores and the tiny black seeds are dispersed in a pepper-pot fashion. The milk-white sap, rich in morphine and other opiates, is transported around the opium poppy by a system of latex vessels but there is negligible morphine in poppy seeds, a flavouring and oil source.

The mechanics of opium harvesting have changed little since antiquity. The surface of green, ripening poppy fruit is repeatedly scratched to release droplets of latex that dry to form a sticky, brown resin. Western Europeans appear to have learnt their recreational opium habits from the Ottomans who supplied opium to Europe long before the Chinese. The recreational use of opium came late to Chinese civilisation; Arab traders appear to have introduced opium to China during the first millennium AD.

Opium became a major issue of trade policy between Imperial Britain and China during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Early in its rule, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) opened the port of Canton to foreign traders. The British East India Company started to use the city to export Chinese tea to feed the growing British obsession with another drug, caffeine. The Company utilised cheap opium grown in British India as a high-value trading commodity. In 1729, the Emperor banned the sale of opium but this hardly curtailed the Company's opium trade; opium was smuggled into China. The illegal opium trade became the world's most valuable commodity trading operation; the British government the world's largest drugs pusher. The Opium Wars of the 1830s and 1850s saw China legalise opium. China increased domestic production until by the early twentieth century she supplied 85% of the world's opium.

The presence of poppy fruits on the Royal College of Anaesthetists' coat of arms is a reminder of opium's legacy and role in modern medicine. Worldwide, legal opium production in India and Turkey cannot keep up with demand but the world is awash with illegally-produced opium.

Further reading

Booth M 1996. Opium: a history. Simon & Schuster Ltd.

Kramer JC 1979. Opium rampant: medical use, misuse and abuse in Britain and the west in the 17th and 18th centuries. British Journal of Addiction 74: 377-389.

Ramoutsaki IA and Konsolaki E 2002. Archaeological evidence on the use of opium in the Minoan world. International Congress Series 1242: 23-29.

Stephen Harris