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Opium Poppy

( Originally Published 1933 )


Papaveraceae Annual

The poppy is native to the Mediterranean and sparingly naturalized in North America. I had always thought the big Oriental poppy was the one from which the opium came, and was surprised when I found that this plant with its grayish foliage and finely textured, crinkly white petals was the source of the powerful drug. Seed sold for opium poppy may produce single or double flowers and the colors range from white through to pink or soft brownish lavender, and some have fringed petals. In some localities, however, notably India, the white-flowered variety is grown as a source of opium, while elsewhere colored varieties are favored. The whole plant is gray-green with a bloom on it, and is smooth except for sharp hairs on the upper half of the flower stem.

Stem. It is twenty inches or more high in my garden, but according to Bailey, rises to four feet.

Leaf. The leaves are irregularly and roundly toothed; the radical ones are narrowed into a short stem, but the stem leaves have none, and partially encircle the flower stem. The leaves grow shorter as they ascend the stem.

Flower. The flowers come in July at Peekskill, and last for about ten days. They are white, single, solitary, of light or purple pink, varying in color and form, measure three to four inches across, and are delicate and charming.

Seed capsule. This is longish, narrow, two inches long and one inch across, and as one looks at it one cannot help but think that the first man to make a Chinese lantern must have been inspired by the shape of the opium poppy's seed pod.

Seed. The seeds are roundish, black in some forms, and white in others, and have a pleasant, nutty flavor, and are quite free from any opium.


The Greeks represented the God Hypnos (sleep) with his head wreathed in poppies, or with poppies in his hand, also the Gods of Death and Night. From the earliest times it was used as a narcotic.

The competitors in the Olympic Games in Greece ate poppy seeds mixed with wine and honey, and Pliny says this decoction was served at the second course on the tables of "the ancients."

Ibn Baithar says when opium is dissolved in vinegar and put up a donkey's nose, it makes him weep and he will bray. I do not doubt him, but merely wonder why one should do this at all.


The opium comes from the shell of the seed capsule, or wall of the fructified ovary called the pericarp. When this turns yellowish and is slightly soft to the touch (ac-cording to Lloyd, "Origins and History") the workers take a knife with a fine saw edge and incise it. They must be careful not to cut into the interior of the capsule or the juice will flow inside. Several hours are allowed to elapse between the cutting and gathering, then the drops, called tears, after being scraped off, are kneaded into opium balls of a uniform consistency, packed into cylindrical baskets lined with linen, each being kept apart from the others either by seeds or wild rumex leaves. Smyrna was the principal port of export. In Europe and North America the crop of opium failed because of the climate and the expense of the labor.

Medicine. The opium is highly important in medicine to produce sleep and relieve pain by numbing the perceptive centers of the brain.

Food. The seeds, as mentioned earlier, are scattered on top of cakes and breads, especially a kind called seed twists, and made into a filling of a bread called Swiss roll. For these purposes they are grown in almost every German vegetable garden.


The opium poppy likes a fairly rich soil and sunlight; comes readily from seed; and if necessary should be thinned. Poppies are notoriously difficult to transplant. In their native lands they are sown in the fall and flower in April and May. In the North we sow them after frost and they flower in July.

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