In the month of May, in several parts of Asia and in the Middle East, large fields glow with the lovely white, lavender and red colors of the blooming flowers of poppy. Poppy is also known as opium poppy, and is grown for its high utility value rather than as a mere ornament.
When the time is ripe for harvesting, the beautiful and colorful petals of the poppy start to dry up and fall off, littering the fields in a riot of color, leaving behind the bulbous green capsules that remain on the 2 to 4 feet high stalks, where they gradually swell for about ten days. After this period of time, the workers arrive, and start their 2,000 year old ritual of walking backwards among the stalks, and making sift precise cuts in the swollen capsules, always making sure that they do not touch the immature seeds within the plant. As soon as the cut is made, a whitish fluid oozes out, and this fluid is allowed to dry and harden. The fluid turns brown the next day, and it is collected as gummy globs of opium.
It is a well known fact that the opium poppy is a very powerful plant, and its superior powers have been known even from the year 3000 BC, at which time it was known as the ‘joy plant' by the Sumerians who apparently used it quite frequently. By the year 300 BC, opium had become popular with Arabs, Romans, and Greeks as a sedative and soporific, and widely used in countries as diverse as Persia, India, Europe, China, and the Americas. The opium poppy has been termed a boon to humanity, and a curse at the same time, because of the fact that although the herb can bring relief for a great number of maladies that a human being suffers from, it can also be a terrible curse to those people who happen to fall under its spell, since it is extremely addictive.
It was in the year 1803 that a 20 year old German pharmacist named Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Serturner was able to successfully isolate one of opium poppy's main ingredients, morphine, and this made it the first ever alkaloid plant thus isolated. This discovery set off a research revolution of sorts for the scientific community, and this changed medicine forever. Soon enough, dozens of alkaloids such as atropine, cocaine, caffeine, and quinine, were isolated from other plants.
Morphine, as has been widely acknowledged, is one of the best painkillers known to medicine and to man. It acts mainly on the sensory nerve cells of the cerebrum, and this effectively blocks the pain from other part of the body. It also acts as a stimulant. Opium induces euphoria and helps to eliminate anxieties, fears, tensions, and fears, all of these being the effect sought by addicts wanting to escape the realities of life. However, morphine does decrease respiration, at times even to the point of death, and furthermore, it can be very addictive. In the case of heroin, a further refinement of morphine, it is so very addictive that its use has been banned even as a medicine.
The opium poppy also gives other alkaloids like codeine, papaverine, and so on. Codeine is an analgesic, and it is often recommended to obtain relief from minor pains and aches, at times in combination with aspirin or an aspirin substitute. It is also used often as an ingredient in cough syrups, because it suppresses the cough reflex. Papaverine is a muscle relaxant and this blocks the nerve impulses that are held responsible for contractions. It can be used to treat intestinal and stomach spasms too and also the asthmatic attacks that can be triggered by respiratory spasms.
The medications mentioned above are all obtained from the unripe seed capsules of the opium poppy; and when they are allowed to ripen, all traces of these medicines disappear. These ripe seeds can however be used in food: who has not eaten rolls sprinkled liberally with tiny black crunchy spheres? Everyone has eaten ripened opium seed with no ill effects whatsoever.
Opium poppies have been cultivated actively by human beings even since Neolithic times, for perhaps medical, as well as spiritual reasons. For example, according to Greek legend, when the Goddess Demeter lost her daughter Persephone, she got into the habit of taking opium poppies in order to forget her sorrow. Similarly, the Greeks at Eleusis took opium poppies to forget their sorrows, while the Roman God of sleep, Somnus is seen in the company of opium poppies! While Ceres, the Roman fertility goddess used opium poppies to reduce pain, the Renaissance doctor Paracelsus insisted that opium poppies would one day prove to be a real source of immortality for human beings.
In 1804, morphine from poppy became one of the first alkaloids in the history of chemistry to be isolated successfully. During the American Civil War, soldiers found a use for the versatile poppy: they found that it could not only be used to cure dysentery, but also as a painkiller. Through the years, it has been found that the Chinese have used poppy to treat cases of diarrhea, headaches and asthma, and they have also fund a use for the unripe seeds of the poppy by using the opium latex from the unripe capsules as both antitussive and sedative, since it has been proven that opium poppies contain over 20 alkaloids, including morphine, papaverine, noscapine, and codeine. Today, scientists have realized that poppy's alkaloids can be used as an effective painkiller: while codeine can be used to treat minor pains, noscapine can be used to treat coughing, and papaverine can be used to increase blood flow. Opium poppy has also been used as a base for powerful synthetic opiates. However, it must be remembered that because of its very strong addictive properties, the use of opium products is considered to be illegal in many countries, even though opium in its form of dried latex has been used variously as a powerful narcotic, analgesic, and antispasmodic. In herbal tradition, opium is considered to be an excellent ‘cold' remedy, because of its ability to reduce physical function, and to sedate and suppress coughs, nervous activity, including pain. Since opium is highly addictive, it is generally used after it has been found that other less powerful analgesics have failed to bring the much needed relief for the patient. Opium also brings great relief to patients suffering from diarrhea and persistent coughs.
Other medical uses
Habitat and cultivation
Native to Western Asia, the opium poppy is today cultivated all across the world, as a real source of morphine and codeine, although it is also cultivated illegally as a source of opium and heroin. It is during the summer that the seeds are cut to obtain the white latex from them the next day.
Much research into opium poppy has been done through the years, confirming most of the uses of the poppy as explained earlier.
Opium poppy contains over 40 opium alkaloids, including codeine (about 1%), morphine (up to 20%), narcotine (about 5%), and papaverine (about 1%). It also contains meconic acid, albumin, mucilage, sugars, resin, and wax. Almost all the alkaloids of opium poppy are found to have a well established therapeutic action. For instance, morphine is used as a powerful analgesic to relieve pain, especially in cases of terminal illness, while codeine, a milder analgesic, is often used for milder pains like headaches, and for the symptomatic treatment of diarrhea. Opium is strongly addictive.