Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, the streets of East Finchley are currently populated by a most exotic invader, and not a recent one either. Opium Poppy has been grown in the UK since at least the Bronze Age, and is widely naturalised in our towns and villages.The ‘wild’ plant has a lilac flower, as in the photo above, but garden varietals include blooms in red, pink and white, and even double-flowered varieties. However, Opium Poppy It is easily recognised by its greyish, waxy (glaucous) foliage, its heavy-headed buds and its distinctive seed capsule, which is a wonder in itself.
The Opium poppy is the root source of all the opiate drugs, including morphine, heroin, and codeine. It is the most effective painkiller for extreme pain that we have, and also one of the most addictive. Its very name means ‘sleep-giving poppy’. The drug is harvested both by making slits in the seed-case and extracting the latex, and via ‘poppy straw’, which is the dried plant minus the seeds. Very little of the active ingredient is produced in the UK climate, but I did once have a boyfriend who optimistically grew a patch of the plants, lovingly harvested the sap, smoked it and then threw up for two days, so let that be a lesson to us all. Please note that it is also ambiguously illegal to grow it in the USA (for an interesting story about Michael Pollan’s 1997 experience with Papaver somniferum click here ), and totally illegal in Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and the UAE.
What a complicated history this plant has! The ancient Sumerian and Minoan peoples both knew of the medicinal and psychoactive properties of the plant. Much later, during the period 1830-1860, Britain flooded China with Indian-grown opium during the Opium Wars. This happened because Britain had a hunger for Chinese silks, porcelain and tea, but the Chinese were largely self-sufficient and needed no British goods. The balance of payments deficit alarmed the British, and so they started to export the drug into China. As the number of addicts grew, the Chinese Government started to impound the opium without compensation to the British. This quickly escalated into war, by the end of which the Chinese markets had been ratcheted open, there were an estimated 12 million opium addicts in China, and the British had much improved their trade deficit.
Cultivation of the plant worldwide is complicated by the fact that it can be grown either for the illegal narcotics trade, or for the legal pharmaceutical trade. Indeed, a recent initiative by the International Council for Security and Development, called ‘Poppy for Medicine’ has suggested that poppies could be grown by Afghan villagers for medicinal purposes. Afghanistan is historically reliant on the income from opium generated by drug-trafficking, and also, ironically, has a shortage of opiate medicines for its own population. If controlled properly, the growth and harvest of poppies could help to alleviate both these problems, as it has done in areas of India and Turkey where the same strategy has been implemented.
Opium poppies also have less contentious uses. They produce the poppy-seeds for rolls and loaves, and for some truly delicious Eastern European confections, such as this Polish poppyseed cake. However, beware: a television programme called Mythbusters illustrated that someone could fail a drugs test after only two poppyseed bagels, even though the seeds have no narcotic effect. Certainly something to watch if you are a sportsperson.As you might expect, a plant as powerful as the Opium Poppy has a wealth of folklore, and the wonderful Poison Garden website is a treasure-trove of facts. Here, I shall just pick a couple of my favourites:
- Vampires are compelled to count poppyseeds if they come across them, so if you are ever pursued by such a creature just scatter a handful of seeds about to ensure you can make your getaway.
- The phrase ‘hip’ (as in ‘cool’) is not so ‘hip’ anymore, but it came from the phrase ‘being on the hip’, i.e. lying on one’s side smoking opium in an opium den.
- Hiding poppyseeds in a bride’s shoe will make her infertile
- Scattering poppyseeds around the bed on St Andrew’s night would ensure a dream of one’s future husband
- Eating a cake made with poppyseeds on New Year’s Eve would provide abundance for the year to come.
It interests me that the sedative effects of morphine on humans are not shared with other members of the animal kingdom. Cats in particular can become more excited rather than less when treated with the drug, and it is used with caution by vets with other creatures too. For people, though, the drug seems to fit our chemistry like a key to a lock, and this is what causes the dependency that can be such a terrible curse. Few plants that I’ve written about have such a capacity to help us, or to destroy us, according to the wisdom with which we use it. It is an unexpectedly powerful plant to find growing on a suburban street in North London.