Opium Poppy

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The Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Images Of This Fascinating Plant

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The milky latex sap of opium poppies contains isoquinoline alkaloids. This class of alkaloid contains a double carbon ring with one nitrogen atom (N). It is classified as a narcotic and is commonly found in certain members of the poppy family (Papaveraceae), such as the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). Narcotic refers to the pain-relieving and sleep-inducing properties of these highly-addictive alkaloids, including morphine, codeine and thebaine. Morphine is named after Morpheus the god of sleep, while the specific epithet of the opium poppy (somniferum) means "to sleep" in Latin. These potent alkaloids are obtained from the milky latex sap of the mature seed capsule of the opium poppy. The raw opium sap drips from fresh cuts into the pericarp of the capsules, and upon oxidation and solidification in the air it turns black. Morphine is acetylated to produce diacetylmorphine--better known as heroin. The poppy seeds used on bagels and rolls also come from opium poppies, and although they don't cause any narcotic effects on hungry people after their coffee breaks, they can trigger a positive reaction in very sensitive urine tests for drugs. In addition to Papaver, naturally-occurring opiate alkaloids also occur in the related genera Argemone and Dicentra. The opium poppy has undoubtedly caused untold suffering by people addicted to its alkaloids, but has also brought immeasurable relief from pain for countless people throughout the ages. Although there are some potent synthetic opiates such as Demerol®, natural morphine is still one of the world's best pain relievers.

In the commercial (legal) product of opium, large fields of poppies are carefully grown in undisclosed locations. The raw opium is harvested using the "poppy straw" method. When the flowers gave gone to seed, combines cut the dried seed stalks containing alkaloid-rich, seed-bearing capsules. The seeds are removed for the culinary market. Raw opium is chemically extracted from the ground up capsules.

An opium poppy seedling (Papaver somniferum), showing two slender cotyledons and several young, developing leaves. The seed is still attached to one of the cotyledons. Note the favose-reticulate (honeycombed) seed coat. The following image shows the very pale flower that developed from these seedlings.

Flower of opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) grown from commercial poppy seed. This strain has very pale petals compared with other more showy cultivars.

Mature seed pod of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) with milky latex sap dripping from a recent cut. The latex sap contains a mixture of naturally-occurring narcotic alkaloids including morphine and codeine. Morphine is acetylated to produce diacetylmorphine, better known as heroin.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the narcotic alkaloids morphine and codeine were available in over-the-counter drugs, such as cough syrups and teething medicines. In fact, there are cases of young children becoming addicted to opiates. People sought relief from bad coughs, even though some were probably infected with tuberculosis. The medicine bottles shown above are very old. Their original content is unknown.

Left: Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), a surprising discovery in the burned forested area along Sunrise Highway. Note the clasping leaf base (red arrow), nodding bud and glaucous, glabrous foliage. Right: Raw opium latex is dripping from the incised seed capsule.

Isoquinoline Alkaloids Of Opium Poppy: Codeine & Morphine

Opium poppy seed capsules (Papaver somniferum). Numerous minute seeds are released through pores below the stigmatic disk. This type of capsule is called poricidal.

Poricidal Capsule Of The Opium Poppy

Seeds from the opium poppy are commonly used on poppy seed bagels. Although they don't cause any narcotic effects on hungry people after their coffee breaks, poppy seeds can trigger a positive reaction in very sensitive urine tests for drugs.


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