Papaver somniferum

Papaver somniferum
Scientific classification
Species: P. somniferum
Binomial name
Papaver somniferum

Papaver somniferum, commonly known as the opium poppy,[2] or breadseed poppy,[3] 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.

This poppy is grown as an agricultural crop on a large scale, for one of three primary purposes. The first is to produce seeds that are eaten by humans, known commonly as poppy seed. The second is to produce opium for use mainly by the pharmaceutical industry.[4] The third is to produce other alkaloids, mainly thebaine and oripavine, that are processed by the pharmaceutical industry into drugs such as codeine and oxycodone.[4] Each of these goals has special breeds that are targeted at one of these businesses, and breeding efforts (including the use of GMO) are continually underway.[4][5][6] A comparatively small amount of Papaver somniferum is also produced commercially for ornamental purposes.

It is increasingly a misnomer to call Papaver somniferum the opium poppy—as many varieties have been bred, and continue to be bred, that do not produce a significant quantity of opium.[3][5] The variety known as Sujata produces no latex at all.[6] Breadseed poppy is more accurate as a common name today because all varieties of Papaver somniferum produce edible seeds. This differentiation has strong implications for legal policy surrounding the growing of this plant.[5]


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 bear a sparse distribution of coarse hairs. The large leaves are lobed, the upper stem leaves clasping the stem,[7] the lowest leaves with a short petiole.[8]:40 It blooms between June and August.[9] The flowers are up to 30–100 mm (1.2–3.9 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.[9] All parts of the plant exude white latex when wounded.[7]:87[10]:32

Papaver somniferum was formally described by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in his seminal publication Species Plantarum in 1753 on page 508.[11][12]

Varieties and cultivars

Papaver somniferum has one accepted subspecies, Papaver somniferum subsp. setigerum (DC.) Arcang.[11] 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, and production of opium. Papaver somniferum (sometimes called Papaver paeoniflorum) is a subtype of opium poppy whose flowers are highly double, and are grown in many colors. P. somniferum (sometimes called Papaver laciniatum) is a subtype of opium poppy whose flowers are highly double and deeply lobed. The 'Sujata' cultivar produces no latex, having no utility for opioid production.


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[13] and in almost all other countries of the world with suitable, temperate climates.[14]

Poppy seeds and oil

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.[15] 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. 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.[16]

When the European Union attempted to ban the cultivation of Papaver somniferum by private individuals on a small scale (such as personal gardens), citizens in EU countries where poppy seed is eaten heavily, such as countries in the Central-Eastern region, strongly resisted the plan, causing the EU to change course. Singapore, UAE, and Saudi Arabia are among nations that ban even having poppy seeds, not just growing the plants for them.[17] The UAE has a long prison sentence for anyone possessing poppy seeds.[18]


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.[19]

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.[20] Tincture of opium B.P., containing 1% w/v of anhydrous morphine, also remains in the British Pharmacopoeia,[21] 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 that are used for opium production.[22] Other varieties produce minimal opium or none at all, such as the latex-free Sujata type. Non-opium cultivars that are planted for drug production feature a high level of thebaine or orpivine. Those are refined into drugs like oxycodone. Raw opium contains about 8–14% morphine by dry weight, or more in high-yield cultivars.[23] It may be used directly or chemically modified to produce synthetic opioids such as heroin.


Use of the opium poppy antedates 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.[24] Its sap was later named opion by the ancient Greeks, from where 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 to 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.

The DEA raided Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate in 1987. It removed the poppy plants that had been planted continually there since Jefferson was alive and using opium from them. Employees of the foundation also destroyed gift shop items like shirts depicting the poppy and packets of the heirloom seed.[25]

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

Poppy seed production – 2016
Country (tonnes)
 Czech Republic
Source: FAOSTAT of the United Nations[26]


In 2016, world production of poppy seeds was 92,610 tonnes, led by the Czech Republic with 31% of the world total (table). Turkey and Spain were other major producers.[26]

The New York Times reported, in 2014, that Tasmania was the largest producer of the poppy cultivars used for thebaine (85% of the world's supply) and oripavine (100% of the world's supply) production. Tasmania also had 25% of the world's opium and codeine production.[4]

Regional uses and restrictions

In most of Central Europe, poppyseed is commonly used for traditional pastries and cakes, and it is legal to grow poppies throughout the region, although Germany requires a license.[27]

Since January 1999 in the Czech Republic, according to the 167/1998 Sb. Addictive Substances Act, poppies growing in fields larger than 1 hectare (2.5 acres) is obliged for reporting to the local Custom Office.[28][29] Extraction of opium from the plants is prohibited by law (§ 15 letter d/ of the act). It is also prohibited to grow varieties with more than 0.8% of morphine in dry matter of their capsules, excluding research and experimental purposes (§24/1b/ of the act). The name Czech blue poppy refers to blue poppy seeds used for food.

The United Kingdom does not require a license for opium poppy cultivation, but does for extracting opium for medicinal products.[30]

In the United States, opium poppies and poppy straw are prohibited.[31] 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.[32] The reason for the ambiguity is because the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942 (now repealed)[33][34] stated that any opium poppies should be declared illegal, even if the farmers were issued a state permit. § 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] Canada forbids possessing, seeking or obtaining the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), its preparations, derivatives, alkaloids and salts, although an exception is made for poppyseed.[40]

In some parts of Australia, P. somniferum is illegal to cultivate, but in Tasmania, some 50% of the world supply is cultivated.[41] In New Zealand, it is legal to cultivate the opium poppy as long as it is not used to produce banned drugs.[42]

United Arab Emirates: cultivation of the opium poppy is illegal, as is possession of poppyseed. At least one man has been imprisoned for possessing poppyseed obtained from a bread roll.[43]

Burma bans cultivation in certain provinces. In northern Burma bans have ended a century-old tradition of growing the opium poppy. Between 20,000 and 30,000 former poppy farmers left the Kokang region as a result of the ban in 2002.[44] People from the Wa region, where the ban was implemented in 2005, fled to areas where growing opium is still possible.


Australia (Tasmania), Turkey and India are the major producers of poppy for medicinal purposes and poppy-based drugs, such as morphine or codeine.[45] The USA has a policy of sourcing 80% of its narcotic raw materials from the traditional producers, India and Turkey.[46]

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.[47] 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 poppies into areas of Afghanistan, specifically Kunduz, which has been free of the opium poppy 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.[48]

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.[49] The enzymes were identified as non-heme dioxygenases, and were isolated using functional genomics.[49] Codeine O-demethylase produces the enzyme that converts codeine into morphine.[50]

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[51] 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.[51] The government's response advocated the status quo, being concerned interference might cause the company to stop production.[52]

Ornamental cultivation

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. 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.

As many non-opium cultivars are available, there has been a shift to selling ornamental varieties of those types. Unlike opium-heavy varieties, these cannot be easily processed into usable narcotics by anyone lacking the requisite lab. The Sujata type produces no latex at all so it cannot be used for any kind of drug production.


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.[53][54]

Censorship and misinformation

It is increasingly incorrect to call Papaver somniferum the opium poppy, as many varieties do not produce a significant amount of opium. At least one produces no latex at all. That variety, therefore, also cannot be used to create codeine and other drugs from other alkaloids present in Papaver somniferum latex. This breeding has been done for two purposes. The first is to produce ornamental varieties that cannot be used for home or small-scale opium production, such as one called Danish Flag. Danish Flag and other examples of these cultivars are widely available for consumer purchase, unlike varieties that produce opium. The second is to produce cultivars that can only be used to produce other alkaloids. These are grown commercially for the pharmaceutical industry, as are varieties that are bred for high opium production. Varieties that produce large amounts of opium have been bred for the pharmaceutical industry and are not available for consumers to purchase as seed. The rapidly decreasing availability of Papaver somniferum varieties that produce significant quantities of opium has made laws against the growing of such varieties more questionable, as they don't produce the substance that is the basis for the restrictions.[5]

Some small companies also attempt to profit from the misinformation and information suppression by claiming that varieties that have no significant opium content are a source of significant opium for the home or small-scale grower. Some sites that only sell seeds for opium-free varieties even label the poppies Papaver hybridum instead of Papaver somniferum, possibly to provide the illusion that the business is trying to cleverly work around prohibitions on growing varieties that produce opium. The word heirloom is also sometimes inappropriately applied for marketing purposes to these recent varieties. The extent to which false information is spread in forums relating to recreational drug use and/or drug use relating to self-medication is not something that has received media attention. However, the impact on small business has been examined by a few media articles, such as the one describing the raid on Monticello. That article, published by Alternet, also discussed how censorship relates to historical public knowledge in terms of Papaver somniferum, Thomas Jefferson, and period culture.[25]

The lack of latex in one cultivar and the lack of significant opium production in some others also makes law enforcement difficult, as even many acres of this poppy can be planted that cannot be readily used, or used at all (in the case of the Sujata type), by individuals to produce edible drugs. Non-opium thebaine and orpivine varieties require lab processing for refinement into drugs like oxycodone. Teas and other quick concoctions or extracts from such varieties are toxic, so they are of no use for unlicensed drug producers unless they have labs that are sophisticated enough to refine the thebaine and/or orpivine. Plantings of non-opium varieties could clearly be planted simply for ornamental purposes, to benefit bees (as poppies produce a great deal of pollen), for growing the edible poppyseed — or a combination of such lawful factors.


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