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The Opium Poppy Its History in Herbal Medicine

Updated on August 9, 2015

The opium poppy

from Dr Thome's flora
from Dr Thome's flora

The history of the opium poppy

The opium poppy belongs to the order of plants known as Ranunculales and placed in the Family Papaveraceae . poppies are given the genus name of Papavar.

The opium poppy has been employed in medicine since at least the days of Hippocrates, although not mentioned in his works it is found in the works of his contemporary Diagoras.

Pliny the Roman man of knowledge gives the following description of the Papavar and its properties.-"Of garden poppies there be three kinds, first the white, whereof the seeds, in old times, being made into biskets, or comfits, with honie, were served up as a junketting dish. The Rusticall peasants of that country were wont to guild or glaze {as it were} the upper crust of their loaves of bread with yolkes of eggs, and then to bestrew it with poppy seeds, which cleave fast to it, having first underlaid the bottom crust with annise seed and gith; and then they put them into the oven being thus seasoned, which gave them a commendable taste to their bread when it was baked..

There is a second kind of poppy called black, out of the heads or bols whereof a white juice or liquor issueth by way of incision, like unto milk, and many receive and reserve it carefully"

The Romans have always honoured the poppy. Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome. Who gave advise to his on our to rid ones enemies. Taking his listener into the garden he tapped the head of the tallest poppies growing there. " With their juice thus drawn and thus prepared, hath the power not only to provoke sleep, but if it be taken in any great quantity, to make men die in their sleep; and this out Physicians call opium"

Certes stated -'I have known many come to their death by this means and namely the father of Licinius Cecinna, late deceased, a man by calling a Pretour, who, not able to endure the intollerable pains and torments of a certain disease, and being weary of life, at Bilbil, in Spain, threatened his own days by taking opium.

There was many disputes among the early days of the use of opium for instance Diagoras and Erasistratus condemned it altogether as a most deadly thing, and would not allow so much as injection or infused opium into the body, for they held it no better than poison, and otherwise hurtful to the eye.

However, in the fullness of time it was not rejected entirely by herbalist and they found a good use for it in the form of an opiat confection known as Diacodium.the 'juice of the poppy' was noticed by Theophrates and the process of gathering this juice is briefly alluded to, by him, but the nature of his works did not lead him to say anything about its uses in medicine.

Herbalists made some weird concoctions , one such example the juice was an ingredient along with Hyoscyamus, burnt lead, and other ingredients as an emollient plaster to be applied in arthritic pains and as an injection, with Alums and Henbane for earache etc.

Opium poppy from above {ornamental species}

In many countries the species is used as an ornamental, and although they do produce seeds they do not produce the juice, as they do in hot countries.
In many countries the species is used as an ornamental, and although they do produce seeds they do not produce the juice, as they do in hot countries. | Source

The history continued

The famous Methodist Caelius Aurelianus was very guarded in his use of opiates, and he appears to approve of the the opinion of those that held that the poppy does not induce sleep , but rather suppresses the senses. It was down to Dioscorides we owe the first detailed account of opium and its use in medicine. In his treatise of the cultivated poppy, he says that its juice is very congealing, when taken in small quantity is anodyne, soporific,concoctive and so useful in coughs and coeliac affections.

However he went on to state that taken in greater quantity, it proves injurious, inducing lethargy and death. it is beneficial in headache, when rubbed in with rose oil, and in earache, when injected with almond oil, saffron and myrrh.

In many parts of India, opium was presented at visits and entertainments in the same similar manner as a snuff box in Europe. Records show that in India there were people who etched out an existence by carrying letters and running with messages through the Provinces, with no other provision than a piece of opium, a bag of rice, and a pot to draw water from the wells. These men performed journeys that we would scarcely credit in these more modern days. In the same manner deserts of the different countries between Indus and the Mediterranean were also traveled by foot messengers, by the aid of this drug, with a few dates and perhaps a piece of coarse bread.


Dr. Thome's Flora Von Deutschland
Dr. Thome's Flora Von Deutschland

Medicinal affects and early trials of opium.

According to the Flora Homeoeopathica {1852-53} the effects of opium on men were classed as follows--In small doses, of from a quarter of a grain to one grain, opium generally acts as a stimulant, though in this respect it is not uniform. Usually the vascular system is somewhat excited, and a sensation of fullness is experienced about the head. the mind is usually exhilarated, the ideas flow more quietly, a pleasurable and comfortable condition of the whole system is experienced, difficult to describe; there is equally a greater exertion than usual.

These symptoms are followed by a diminution of muscular power, and of susceptibility to the impression of external objects; a desire to repose is experienced with a tendency to sleep.Coinciding with these effects that are already taking place the mouth and throat become dry, and hunger is diminishes, though the thirst tends to increase and possible constipation may follow. These are the ordinary effects on some one not used to opium even in small doses. However, its influence becomes greatly diminished, when one uses the drug regularly for excitement or 'pleasure' and therefore they are obliged to increase the dose to get the same level of effect.

As the dose is increased for example from three to four grains the state of excitement is soon followed by a state of depression. The pulse which at first is increased, afterwards is reduced to below the normal standard. The skin becomes hot, the mouth and throat dry, the appetite diminished, the thirst increases and frequently nausea, or even vomiting may occur.

The symptom of excitement soon passes away and a state of torpor follows. The individual seems lethargic, the muscular system appears feeble and the mind is affected causing confusion. This state is quickly followed by an overwhelming desire to sleep, which is often accompanied by dreams, sometimes of a pleasing nature, while other times frightening nightmares ensue. When the individual awakes the feeling of nausea, a furred tongue, headache and listlessness are other systems of misuse.

Who are the main producers of the opium poppy

Australia, India and Turkey are major producers of the opium poppy along with countries such as Afghanistan, where it could be a viable crop that would create wealth and prosperity for that country provided it could be policed and managed under a scheme such as the ones employed in India and Turkey.

One of the major opium based medicines is Morphine which is one of if the not the best drug for relieving severe pain. this medicine is always in demand throughout the world for that purpose, so the industry could well provide employment and other benefits for the people of Afghanistan while at the same time providing a much needed product which will alleviate the suffering of millions of people. The Americans and the British are currently trying to establish such an industry with the Afghanistan's which would be of benefit to all concerned. Only time will tell if this can be achieved or whether the crops fall into the wrong hands for more sinister use.

Extracting the juice

The photograph was taken in Den Haag the Seed head cut and the milky coloured juice exudes. The photograph and the cut was made for educational purposes only
The photograph was taken in Den Haag the Seed head cut and the milky coloured juice exudes. The photograph and the cut was made for educational purposes only | Source

Opium extracts

Opium is obtained by making horizontal incisions in the poppy seed heads after the fall of the flower. The milky juice that exudes in the form of tears is left on the plant for 24 hours. After which it is scraped off and was made into cakes. the milky juice is also found in the petals, theseeds have very little of it , and, in fact, on account of the large amount of oil that can be expressed fro them they were considered excellent food for cattle.

opium contains a large number of alkaloides, many being highly poisonous. The cases of poisoning that occurred in England are however, exclusively to the abuse of various medicinal preparations. The symptoms of opium poisoning are drowsiness, leading to insensibility, relaxation of the muscles, clammy perspiration and contraction of the pupils.The principle opium bases used in medicine are Morphine {as previously mentioned} Codeine, and Apomorphine the first being narcotic and the third an emetic.

The patent medicines were soothing syrups and various cordials which contained opium-the risk associated with the abuse of such fluids was well known. One drop of laudanum {tincture of opium} has on many occasions proved fatal to infants. Records show that this was administered for the benefit of the mother rather than the well being of the infant. Fatalities from overdoses of opium were very common occurrences.

In experienced hands opium is one of the most valuable drugs, being administered for severe pain but also to sooth excited nerves. It was also used as an astringent in the case of diarrhoea and as a sedative to ease coughs etc.

Common poppies in water colour

Poppies in water colour. poppies have long been revered as beautiful and useful wild flora
Poppies in water colour. poppies have long been revered as beautiful and useful wild flora | Source

Opium poppy its history in England.

The opium poppy was once grown in several parts of the country notably in Lincolnshire. During the 1800's there was a steady market for poppy heads, the capsules being harvested about September and placed on a drying floor in a well ventilated building. The capsules were placed in thin layers upon the floor and turned everyday in order to achieve uniformity in the drying process. The capsules were considered ready after they have become brittle and crack in the hand when pressed. At that period in England the growers of the opium poppy supplied the market only with poppy heads.

Opium poppies grow best in a rich, moist soil, with plenty sun. Usually it was harvested after wheat, oats and barley. After manuring and ploughing in Autumn the seed was sown in March or April one pound of seed allowed for each acre. The drills were made a foot apart. When three to four inches high the plants were cut into clumps six to nine inches apart, then all except one were removed from the clump. if needed a dressing of soot or some fertilizer was applied.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      blueheron, thank you for the additional information which is very interesting. Best wishes to you.

    • blueheron profile image

      Sharon Vile 

      5 years ago from Odessa, MO

      There was a lot of opium addiction in the 1800s. Doctors prescribed laudanum for just about every ill--including "women's complaints"--so even many women became addicted.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      aviannovice, Hi Deb blue heron has answered your query. Thank you for visiting . Best wishes to you.

      blueheron , thanks for that! Best wishes to you.

    • blueheron profile image

      Sharon Vile 

      5 years ago from Odessa, MO

      Actually, it contained cocaine.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I don't know if it is true or not, I never investigated it, but had been told that coca-cola once contained opium.


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