Papaver somniferum

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Papaver somniferum
Illustration Papaver somniferum0.jpg
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Order: Ranunculales
Family: Papaveraceae
Genus: Papaver
Species: P. somniferum
Binomial name
Papaver somniferum

Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy,[2] is a species of flowering plant in the family Papaveraceae. It is the species of plant from which opium and poppy seeds are derived and is a valuable ornamental plant, grown in gardens. Its native range is probably the eastern Mediterranean, but is now obscured by ancient introductions and cultivation.

The opium poppy is the only species of Papaveraceae that is grown as an agricultural crop on a large scale. Other poppy species, such as Papaver rhoeas and Papaver argemone, are important agricultural weeds, and may be mistaken for the crop.


Papaver somniferum flower
Papaver somniferum plant showing the typical glaucous appearance

Papaver somniferum is an annual herb growing to about 100 cm (39 in) tall. The plant is strongly glaucous, giving a greyish-green appearance, and the stem and leaves are sparsely covered with coarse hairs. The large leaves are lobed and clasp the stem at the base. It blooms between June and August.[3] The flowers are up to 30–100 cm (12–39 in) diameter, normally with four white, mauve or red petals, sometimes with dark markings at the base. The fruit is a hairless, rounded capsule topped with 12–18 radiating stigmatic rays, or fluted cap.[3] All parts of the plant exude white latex when wounded.[4]:87[5]:32

Varieties and cultivars[edit]

Papaver somniferum has one known subspecies Papaver somniferum subsp. setigerum (DC.) Arcang.[6] It also has many varieties and cultivars. Colors of the flowers vary widely, as do other physical characteristics, such as number and shape of petals, number of flowers and fruits, number of seeds, color of seeds, production of opium, etc.[citation needed]

Papaver somniferum Paeoniflorum Group (sometimes called Papaver paeoniflorum,[7]) is a subtype of opium poppy whose flowers are highly double, and are grown in many colors. P. somniferum Laciniatum Group (sometimes called Papaver laciniatum,[8]) is a subtype of opium poppy whose flowers are highly double and deeply lobed, to the point of looking like a ruffly pom-pom.

Recent varieties and cultivars, notably the cultivars "Norman" and "Przemko",[9] have low morphine content (less than 1%), and much higher concentrations of other alkaloids.


It was formerly described by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in his seminal publication 'Species Plantarum' in 1753 on page 508.[6][10]

The species epithet 'somniferum' is Latin for 'sleep bringing'.[11]


The native range of opium poppy is probably the Eastern Mediterranean, but extensive cultivation and introduction of the species throughout Europe since ancient times have obscured its origin. It has escaped from cultivation, or has been introduced and become naturalized extensively in all regions of the British Isles, particularly in the south and east[12] and in almost all other countries of the world with suitable, temperate climates.[13]


Dried poppy seed pods and stems (plate), and seeds (bowl)
Capsule of Papaver somniferum showing latex (opium) exuding from incision

The opium poppy, as its name indicates, is the principal source of opium, the dried latex produced by the seed pods. Opium contains a class of naturally occurring alkaloids known as opiates, that include morphine, thebaine, codeine, papaverine, noscapine and oripavine. The Latin epithet somniferum means "sleep-bringing", referring to the sedative properties of some of these opiates.

The opiate drugs are extracted from opium. The latex oozes from incisions made on the green seed pods and is collected once dry. Tincture of opium or laudanum, consisting of opium dissolved in alcohol or a mixture of alcohol and water, is one of many unapproved drugs regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Its marketing and distribution persists because its historical use preceded the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act of 1938.[14] Tincture of opium B.P., containing 1% w/v of anhydrous morphine, also remains in the British Pharmacopoeia,[15] listed as a Class A substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Morphine is the predominant alkaloid found in the cultivated varieties of opium poppy.[16] Raw opium contains about 8–14% morphine by dry weight, or more in high-yield cultivars.[17] It may be used directly or chemically modified to produce synthetic opioids such as heroin.

Poppy seeds and oil[edit]

Polish makowiec, a nut roll filled with poppy seed paste

Poppy seeds from Papaver somniferum are an important food item and the source of poppyseed oil, an edible oil that has many uses. The seeds contain very low levels of opiates and the oil extracted from them contains even less.[18] Both the oil and the seed residue also have commercial uses.

Poppy seeds are used as a food in many cultures. They may be used whole by bakers to decorate their products or milled and mixed with sugar as a sweet filling.[19] They have a creamy and nut-like flavor, and when used with ground coconut, the seeds provide a unique and flavour-rich curry base. They can be dry roasted and ground to be used in wet curry (curry paste) or dry curry.[20]


Use of the opium poppy predates written history. Images of opium poppies have been found in ancient Sumerian artifacts (circa 4000 BC). The making and use of opium was known to the ancient Minoans.[21] Its sap was later named opion by the ancient Greeks, from whence it gained its modern name of opium.

Opium was used for treating asthma, stomach illnesses, and bad eyesight.

The First and Second Opium Wars between China, and the British Empire and France, took place in the late 1830s through the early 1860s, when the Chinese attempted to stop western traders from selling and later smuggling opium into their country from the large crops grown in India. The British in particular had a deep trade deficit with China, and the sale of British-owned Indian opium helped balance it.

Many modern writers, particularly in the 19th century, have written on the opium poppy and its effects, notably Thomas de Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

The French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz used opium for inspiration, subsequently producing his Symphonie Fantastique. In this work, a young artist overdoses on opium and experiences a series of visions of his unrequited love.

Opium poppies (flower and fruit) appear on the coat of arms of the Royal College of Anaesthetists.

Poppy seed production – 2014
Country (tonnes)
 Czech Republic
Source: FAOSTAT of the United Nations[22]


In 2014, world production of poppy seeds was 83,577 tonnes, led by the Czech Republic with 30% of the world total (table). Turkey, and Spain were other major producers.[22]

Regional uses and restrictions[edit]

Opium poppy fields near Metheringham, Lincolnshire, England
Dried blue, gray, and white poppy seeds used for pastries in Germany
White poppy seeds, magnified

In most of Central Europe (Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland), poppy seed is commonly used for traditional pastries and cakes. It is legal to grow poppies in all of these countries, though Germany requires a license.[23]

The United Kingdom does not require a license for opium poppy cultivation, but does for extracting opium for medicinal products.[24]

Canada forbids possessing, seeking or obtaining opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), its preparations, derivatives, alkaloids and salts, although an exception is made for poppy seeds.[25]

Italy forbids cultivation of P. somniferum to extract the alkaloids, but small numbers of specimens can be grown without special permits for purely ornamental purposes.[citation needed]

In Australia, P. somniferum is illegal to cultivate.[26]

United Arab Emirates: cultivation of the opium poppy is illegal, as is possession of poppy seeds. At least one man has been imprisoned for possessing poppy seeds obtained from a bread roll.[27]

In New Zealand, it is legal to cultivate opium poppy as long as it is not used to produce banned drugs.[28]

Burma bans cultivation in certain provinces. In northern Burma bans have ended a century-old tradition of growing opium poppy. Between 20,000 and 30,000 former poppy farmers left the Kokang region as a result of the ban in 2002.[29] People from the Wa region, where the ban was implemented in 2005, fled to areas where growing opium is still possible.

In the United States, opium poppy and poppy straw are prohibited.[30] As the opium poppy is legal for culinary or esthetic reasons, poppies were once grown as a cash crop by farmers in California. The law of poppy cultivation in the United States is somewhat ambiguous.[31] The reason for the ambiguity is because the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942 (now repealed)[32][33] stated that any opium poppy should be declared illegal, even if the farmers were issued a state permit.[34] § 3 of the Opium Poppy Control Act stated:

It shall be unlawful for any person who is not the holder of a license authorizing him to produce the opium poppy, duly issued to him by the Secretary of the Treasury in accordance with the provisions of this Act, to produce the opium poppy, or to permit the production of the opium poppy in or upon any place owned, occupied, used, or controlled by him.

This led to the Poppy Rebellion, and to the Narcotics Bureau arresting anyone planting opium poppies and forcing the destruction of poppy fields of anyone who defied the prohibition of poppy cultivation.[35][36] Though the press of those days favored the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the state of California supported the farmers who grew opium poppies for their seeds for uses in foods such as poppyseed muffins. Today, this area of law has remained vague and remains somewhat controversial in the United States.[37] The Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942 was repealed on 27 October 1970.[38][39]


Australia (Tasmania), Turkey and India are the major producers of poppy for medicinal purposes and poppy-based drugs, such as morphine or codeine.[40] The USA has a policy of sourcing 80% of its narcotic raw materials from the traditional producers, India and Turkey.[41]

A recent initiative to extend opium production for medicinal purposes called Poppy for Medicine was launched by The Senlis Council which proposes that Afghanistan could produce medicinal opium under a scheme similar to that operating in Turkey and India.[42] The Council proposes licensing poppy production in Afghanistan, within an integrated control system supported by the Afghan government and its international allies, to promote economic growth in the country, create vital drugs and combat poverty and the diversion of illegal opium to drug traffickers and terrorist elements. Senlis is on record advocating reintroduction of poppy into areas of Afghanistan, specifically Kunduz, which has been poppy free for some time.

The Senlis proposal is based in part on the assertion that there is an acute global shortage of opium poppy–based medicines some of which (morphine) are on the World Health Organisation's list of essential drugs as they are the most effective way of relieving severe pain. This assertion is contradicted by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the "independent and quasi-judicial control organ monitoring the implementation of the United Nations drug control conventions". INCB reports that the supply of opiates is greatly in excess of demand.[43]

Two enzymes and their encoding genes, thebaine 6-O-demethylase (T6ODM) and codeine O-demethylase (CODM), are involved in morphine biosynthesis derived from the opium poppy.[44] The enzymes were identified as non-heme dioxygenases, and were isolated using functional genomics.[44] Codeine O-demethylase produces the enzyme that converts codeine into morphine.[45]

In late 2007, the British government permitted the pharmaceutical company Macfarlan Smith (a Johnson Matthey company, FTSE 100) to cultivate opium poppies in England for medicinal reasons[46] after Macfarlan Smith's primary source, India, decided to increase the price of export opium latex. The Office of Fair Trading has alerted the government to their monopoly position on growing in the UK and worldwide production of diamorphine and recommended consideration.[46] The government's response advocated the status quo, being concerned interference might cause the company to stop production.[47]

Ornamental cultivation[edit]

A red opium poppy flower used for ornamental purposes

Once known as the "common garden poppy",[citation needed] live plants and seeds of the opium poppy are widely sold by seed companies and nurseries in most of the western world, including the United States. Poppies are sought after by gardeners for the vivid coloration of the blooms, the hardiness and reliability of the poppy plants, the exotic chocolate-vegetal fragrance note of some cultivars, and the ease of growing the plants from purchased flats of seedlings or by direct sowing of the seed. Poppy seed pods are also sold for dried flower arrangements.

Since "opium poppy and poppy straw" are listed in Schedule II of the United States' Controlled Substances Act, a DEA license may be required to grow poppies in ornamental or display gardens. In fact, the legal status of strictly ornamental poppy gardens is more nuanced, and destruction of ornamental poppy installations or prosecution of gardeners (except those caught extracting opium via capsule scarification or tea extraction) are virtually unheard of.[citation needed] During the summer, opium poppies can be seen flowering in gardens throughout North America and Europe, and displays are found in many private plantings, as well as in public botanical and museum gardens such as United States Botanical Garden, Missouri Botanical Garden, and North Carolina Botanical Garden.

Many countries grow the plants, and some rely heavily on the commercial production of the drug as a major source of income. As an additional source of profit, the seeds of the same plants are sold for use in foods, so the cultivation of the plant is a significant source of income. This international trade in seeds of P. somniferum was addressed by a UN resolution "to fight the international trade in illicit opium poppy seeds" on 28 July 1998.


After the ousting of the Taliban from the town of Marja in the southern Afghan province Helmand by Operation Moshtarak, American and NATO commanders were confronted with the dilemma of, on the one hand, the need to "win the hearts and minds" of the local population and, on the other, the need to eradicate poppy fields and destroy the opium economy that allegedly financed the Taliban insurgency. It has been speculated that US Marines were initially ordered to ignore the crops to avoid trampling the local farmers' livelihood, and that this might have been because there were no significant poppy fields there before the first US forces arrived.[48][49]


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