Friday, January 26, 2018

Opium Poppies: Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #31

Poppies are lovely flowers that can add a big splash of color to a garden.

But one poppy papaver somniferum—the opium poppy—is poisonous to humans. (Other poppies, like the Icelandic and Flanders poppies, can be poisonous to horses, cattle and sheep, but not humans.)

The opium seeds, however, contain very little toxic or narcotic properties. They are often used in baking, especially on bagels and muffins, and cooking eliminates most of the trace toxins. (Not enough to pass a drug test, though, so don't eat poppy seeds if you know you're going to be tested.)

Don't eat the poppy seed bagel if you're getting a drug test
People can safely eat one teaspoon of raw poppy seeds for every seven pounds of body weight. That means, according to, that someone weighing about 150 pounds can eat seven tablespoons of raw poppy seeds at a time without ill effects.

Opium Poppy Sap

It's the white sap (called "latex') from the living plant contains that the dangerous alkaloid compound that can kill you (or, used properly, kill pain.) The latex is especially concentrated in the plant's fruit. But eating any part of the plant other than the seeds can be fatal.

Symptom of poppy poisoning are stupor, contracted pupils, slow breathing, respiratory and circulatory depression, coma and eventually, death.

That poppy latex is also the source of the drugs opium, morphine and codeine, which have been the world's preferred painkillers for at least four millennia.

Opium Poppy History

Pictures of the opium poppy have been found in artifacts from ancient Sumer. The Sumerian culture emerged in the Tigris-Euphrates region around 5000 BC.

We also know that ancient Greeks used it for its painkilling properties, who used the dried sap or "juice" as a painkiller. In fact, the word "opium" is derived from the Greek word for juice: "opos." Opium is the dried sap that is generally extracted from the poppy's fruit.
Paracelsus invented Laudanum

Opioids have been a boon to humanity ever since, since they deaden pain and induce sleep.
The name "papaver somniferum" means "sleep inducing poppy" from the Latin word for sleep, "somnum."

In the 16th century, the alchemist Paracelsus discovered that opium could be dissolved in alcohol to form a tincture that had many medicinal properties.  He called it laudanum.  By the 19th century, laudanum became a household remedy for everything from menstrual cramps and intestinal disorders to coughs and colds. It was used in many patent medicines and sold without a prescription until the early 20th century.

Control of Opioids

The addictive properties of laudanum and other opioids were not considered serious for many years, but in 1914, the US passed the Harrison Narcotics Act, which of 1914 restricted the manufacture and distribution of opiates, including laudanum.

The cultivation of the poppies themselves was banned in the US in 1942, even for California farmers growing poppy seeds as food. And in 1987, Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, was raided, his garden of heirloom opium poppies destroyed, along with all tee-shirts and other souvenirs that depicted the plant.

Gotta watch out for those opioid tee-shirts.

Cultivation of opium poppies is also banned in Canada and Australia, although it's legal in the UK for ornamental and food purposes. That's also true in most of Europe. However the poppies are banned in many Middle Eastern countries and in the United Arab Emirates you can be sentenced to a long jail sentence for possessing so much as the crumb of a poppyseed roll.

In recent years, a number of variations on papaver somniferum have been developed that produce none of the opiate latex. Those are supposed to be legal to grow in the US, but they are still controversial. Poppy seeds are also available in many US gardening catalogues in the 21st century, and prosecutions for growing ornamental opium poppies are very rare.

Banning the plants has not, of course, done anything to stem the rise of opioid addiction and overdose deaths that has recently  become epidemic in the US.

It's important to note that most of these deaths are not caused by drugs derived from opium poppies. The most deadly drugs are heroin and fentanyl, which are synthetic, laboratory-produced opioids, which are far more powerful than anything derived from the plants.

The most deadly killer is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is over 100 times stronger than morphine—the strongest drug derived from the opium poppy. Fentanyl is a relative newcomer—invented in 1960 and approved for use in the US in 1968. It is meant to be used in surgery, but because it's cheap to make, it has flooded the streets in recent years.

So the current "opioid epidemic" has little to do with the venerable opium poppy, and banning its cultivation won't do anything to stop the deaths.

But if you do run into a real opium poppy, don't eat it.

However, your mystery novel's villain might consider feeding it in a salad to Great Aunt Agatha, the nasty old bird whose estate will come to the villain as soon as the old Aggie kicks the bucket. This could even be the perfect murder if Aunt Agatha is already taking an opioid like oxycodone after her recent dental implant surgery…

Did you know that the poppy seeds on your bagel were related to opium poppies? Do you know anybody who has tested positive for drugs when the only drug they had was a lemon poppyseed muffin?


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  1. Now that's an interesting post! Thanks Anne.

    1. Melodie--I was amazed at how much I didn't know about opium poppies. Research can end up taking you down a rabbit hole. I could have written a much longer post, but decided I'd better stop there. :-)

    2. And what better place to go while researching opium poppies than down a rabbit hole -- an idiom based on the work of Lewis Carroll, who if I remember correctly, may have had a bit of a habit himself.

  2. CS--I think you may be right. A lot of people did in those days. It wasn't until the early 20th century that opium addiction was considered a serious thing.

  3. I always run into things about the opium industry when I read historical fiction set in London. Seems every writer makes it part of the story.
    My children all played high school sports where they had drug testing. Though we all love lemon poppy seed muffins, we didn't have them in the house for years until they were done playing. Not sure if they would have caused a positive test or not but we didn't take chances.

    1. Susan--I think opium in Victorian London was kind of like booze in the US 1920s. Forbidden but very much part of the culture.

      I've heard of people having terrible consequences from eating poppyseed muffins or bagels and getting a surprise drug test, so I think you did the right thing keeping them out of the house. Sad, though. :-(