Thursday, July 09, 2009

Poppies, opium and other.

(Still got nothing to blog, you're all stuck with another topic out of left field. Enjoy!)

As a once and future botany student and an all-around plant freak, the USES of plants - usually broken down into industrial, medical, and food - have always fascinated me. In particular the 'weird' plants, the ones with unusual qualities, have interested me. This blog post was almost about Stevia, but we're going back to one of the original plants that got me curious about botany in the first place.

Meet the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. Also known as the garden poppy, common poppy, and a whole buncha other names in other languages.

When I was a kid, my parents had a bird feeder in the back dining room window. They filled it with mixed bird seed, and so every spring we would have plants grow from seeds dropped by the birds. Sunflowers and poppies were the two biggies. Usually my mother weeded out the sunflowers and let the poppies stay, although once in a while she would get a wild hair and let the sunflowers grow and they'd eventually block out the light in the dining room and we'd sit and eat dinner while watching birds duke it out over the sunflower seeds.

Anyway, when I got a little older, I remember looking at those poppies and wondering if they were, you know, REAL poppies. That made DRUGS. (This was before I understood how truly common 'drug' plants are - little did I know they were all over the place.) So I looked them up. I think poppies were the first plant I ever looked up.

It's entirely possible the poppies in Mom's flower beds were opium poppies. It's entirely possible the poppies in your flower beds are, too. They grow as weeds, 'wayside plants', in a great deal of the world, particularly Europe and Asia. And while it is possible to cultivate them for opium production in any temperate climate, the reality is that you'd need acres of them - and a good bit of cheap labor - to make any kind of money at it.

Opium poppies are native to central asia, near as we can tell. They were known to a lot of ancient civilizations - even in the middle east, we've got Sumerian pots (those wacky Sumerians) with pictures of opium poppies on them, that are about five thousand years old. (I'd love to know if they've tried to analyze what was in those pots.) They were likely domesticated very early - we don't know how early, but usually if there's no date, that means REALLY early. Of course they are still grown all through central asia, in some places for food, in some places for medical use, and in some places for sale as illegal drugs.

There is a lot of misinformation flying around about how illegal drugs fund terrorism, but in the case of illegal opium, it really is likely funding terrorism. It is the cash crop of the Taliban in Afghanistan, among other groups.

So to make opium, first, you grow yourself a couple hundred acres of poppies. (From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, I bet that's really beautiful.) Wait until they flower. Pull off the petals (or wait until they drop), and make a slice into the bulb of the flower head. Latex (gummy sap) will ooze out and dry, like this:

Go along every day and scrape off the dried latex and put it in a little jar; either re-cut the flower head, or make sure the current cut is still oozing. Move on to the next flower. (These flowers grow knee to waist high, so imagine doing this all day, bent over.) The latex is then refined by various chemical methods to separate out different chemicals.

I've always been pretty dismissive of the idea of major opium cultivation in the US: no one is willing to do the work involved. Much easier to cook meth. Young kids today. No work ethic. Ha.

Poppy latex is said to contain between forty and a hundred and twenty different alkaloids, including opium, morphine, codeine, and thebaine. (Alkaloids are a class of chemicals that are very reactive in the body; other alkaloids include nicotene, caffeine, cocaine, ephedrine, LSD, and THC, though those aren't in poppies. A very interesting group of chemicals.) What the DEA doesn't want you to know is, these alkaloids are found in ALL poppies, not just opium poppies - it's just that opium poppies contain the most, and are therefore the best choice for mass production.

As for opium and addiction, well. I'm not advocating the use of illegal drugs, but the alkaloids found in poppies are not only the most ancient (that we know of) painkillers in the world, but they are still the best we've ever found. Even in this modern age of engineered drugs, we fall back on our old friend the opium poppy for major pain control. Yes, it does cause physical dependence, but that's not the big deal it's made out to be. Many drugs cause physical dependence, including western society's most favorite legalized drug - caffeine. I won't get on my soap box today about dependence vs. addiction, but I'm tired of drugs being called bad or good on the basis of physical dependence. Particularly since the person talking probably had a cup of tea or coffee that morning.

On a sentimental note, there is a followup to my story of looking up poppies as a kid. About twenty years later, while studying botany in Hawaii, I was walking to class one day and noticed this plant, growing up out of a bed of weeds. It had the distinctive silver-green pointy foliage of poppies, and the flowers, while white, sure looked familiar. It was right outside the door of my horticulture professor's classroom, so I ducked in the door, pointed, and said, "Is that a POPPY?" She grinned and nodded and explained that not only was it a poppy, it was a Hawaiian poppy, pua kala. Somehow we'd had a fairly rare (really rare on Oahu, where we were) native Hawaiian plant pop up, right outside our horticulture classroom.

I like to think the poppies that my mother grew sent a relative to say hello. But I'm sentimental over plants.


Louiz said...

Interesting post. If you're interested in a mini rant, ask me sometime about a friend of mine's dissertation on the history of THC and so on.... or rather a copy of my friend's mini rant

Roz said...

Does your research say anything about birds and/or squirrels eating all the tiny poppy plants you were hoping would grow into beautiful flowers this summer? Out of a packet full of seeds, I have exactly TWO SHOOTS -- the rest have mysteriously disappeared from my planter, despite my watering and fertilizing...

walterknitty said...

My Mom grew red poppies in her flower garden when I was a kid. I always have liked the look of them. I tried growing some this summer but they did not sprout. Next year. Like the point about dependance vs. addicition because there is a difference, it is not the same thing.

Galad said...

Poppies are pretty and obviously serve an important purpose (when used as directed)

Having worked in a hospice we gave that dependency vs. addiction speech so many times. People are so scared of opiods they don't do pain management that could make their lives better.

Barbara said...

Galad, when I'm in hospice I won't care if the drugs they offer will make me addicted or dependent. By that time, who gives a rat?

Julie, thanks for the poppy info. We were talking about whether our red/orange poppies that are so prolific in the garden are the "right" kind for commercial use. Guess they're like the maple sap my kids used to collect in spring from the silver maple in our yard--sweet, just not as sweet as sugar maple. Even a little poppy would go a long way toward smoothing out the day!

I vote for Stevia next. Durwood's growing it for drying and powdering to put in is green tea and we'd like to know more about it.


Donna Lee said...

As a psychiatric case manager (not a social worker, I'm in PA and my degree is not in social work but that's another story)I see real dependence every day. And it's not a bad thing. I depend on my bp meds to keep my pressure down. That discussion comes up at least every week.

I love the scene from the Wizard of Oz. "poppies......". That field of lovely red flowers.

Galad said...

Amazingly a lot of people on hospice do worry about addiction (or their family does)!

Roxie said...

Tincture of Opium is also a powerful solution to diarrhea. One of the deadly side-effects I guess. Too much opium, and the digestive tract shuts down.

Love your essays on various items. Wonder how people initially figured out poppy sap was useful?

Amy Lane said...

I LOVE poppy season in California...and they smell purty too... I always thought it was silly to call a drug 'bad' or 'good' on the basis of dependence as well-- life would really suck if I didn't have a painkiller to hope for when I got hurt.

Shoveling Ferret said...

Amen to the "dependence" vs. addiction" distinction.

And lovely images with this post - poppies are so pretty.

The ancient pots that most famously look like poppy pods are called bilbil (or bil-bil) or base-ring ware (a subset of it, actually) best known from Cyprus of all places around the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1500 BC) if I remember correctly. They're super cute little jars - sort of cock-eyed, with fun painting.
Anyway, they turn up all over the areas bordering the Mediterranean. And the shape and/or the association of the contents become popular so local knock-offs appear in place like Egypt and Canaan as the style filters down to the lower classes from the upper classes. Really cool little pots.
Anyway, here's a link (I hope) to an example from a roughly middle to upper class (using modern analogies) at the Boston MFA:

GrillTech said...

Great post. If I could also make a minor request on the upcoming Stevia post, could you find out if its fermentable? As a brewer I'm looking for ways to sweeten my brews without increasing the alcohol content and was thinking that Stevia may be a valid option.

Alwen said...

Poppies are one of my favorite flowers. "Mother of Pearl", from Thompson & Morgan used to self-seed in my old garden at my parents' year after year. The ground squirrels got 'em here, though.

Poppies, pansies, and morning glories, and lilies.

Cynder said...

My parents used to grow the most beautiful poppies when we were growing up. Thanks for bit of history about them.

TinkingBell said...

Well! welcome to Tasmania, one of the few places in the world where we grow broad acre and legal opium poppies. IN spring and early summer acres and acres and acres of opium poppies are in flower - mainly the palest mauve, but some red. They spring up on the side of the road where seeds fall. We are the worlds largest producer of codeine phosphate. Part of the reason this industry operates here is that should appreciable quantities of either the poppies or the 5kg tins of codeine 'disappear' is that the whole state can be shut down until it is found. No flights or boats in or out.
The poppies look gorgeous. But they stink.

oneofestelles said...

What do you know about black tar heroin? It seems to be what the police in Charlotte mostly confiscate from folks bringing in drugs from Mexico. Is it just grown from Mexican poppies? Is it processed differently?


Joel said...

Tks! There is poppies everywhere at this time of the year, its good to know I can use them!

Also luckily I live in Portugal, a country were drugs are legal! :)