(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.