The Potent Poppy

Illegal narcotics are often poorly understood.  To mark the launch of spy thriller Rogue Elements, which tackles the controversial question of drug reform, Alasdair Moore gives us a botanist’s view of the fascinating plants behind three of the most notorious substances.  This week, the poppy:


Papaver somniferum is a beautiful annual plant with a delicate flower. “Somniferum” means sleep-inducing. P. somniferum grows over one metre in height and is usually unbranched with bluish-grey, green leaves. The flowers can be up to 18cm across and are found in a range of colours from white to purple. Once it has finished flowering the poppy produces its characteristic globose fruit or seed head. This is the source of the milky latex from which the world’s opiates are made. Opium, morphine, codeine and heroin are all derived from this poppy. The latex is traditionally collected from shallow incisions to the seed head from the plant’s splendidly-named articulate lactiferous vessels.  It is thought that the opium poppy has been in cultivation for over 8,000 years; the first known reference to it dates from Mesopotamia around 2000BC in The Assyrian Herbal.

Human interest in the poppy’s latex has been responsible for its spread from the Western Mediterranean region across the globe but its fertile seed must not be underestimated. It’s easy to forget that the seed head has a very real purpose for the plant. The small flavoursome black seeds are familiar to most from the tops of loaves and bagels but they are also extremely efficient at propagating the species. The poppy becomes naturalised very easily, particularly in disturbed ground. The flower’s significance as a memorial to the fallen of the First World War is testament to this. However, it is as a cultivated plant that we know the opium poppy best.

The opium poppy was the British Empire’s most infamous cash crop of the nineteenth century. Britain wanted tea from China. In 1820, Britain imported 30 million pounds of tea for its thirsty citizens. China wanted nothing from Britain other than silver and, following the Napoleonic wars, silver was something that Britain lacked. In order to create a market, British merchants brought bales of cheap opium from India and sold it illegally for Chinese silver. By 1830, 12 million Chinese people were smoking opium, 12 million customers paying cash to British merchants. The First and Second Opium Wars ensued, hastening the collapse of Imperial China.

The poppies were cultivated and processed in India on land secured for the East India Company by Robert Clive. His generalship and victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 was a decisive moment, providing the Company with some of the best agricultural land in India: land that was put to use in the production of opium. Clive died in 1774 from an opium overdose, a drug which he had taken for a bowel complaint and to which he had become addicted.

Next week: coca