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Papaver somniferum L.

Opium poppy, Poppyseed, Poppy, Keshi

Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.

  1. Uses
  2. Folk Medicine
  3. Chemistry
  4. Description
  5. Germplasm
  6. Distribution
  7. Ecology
  8. Cultivation
  9. Harvesting
  10. Yields and Economics
  11. Energy
  12. Biotic Factors
  13. References


Opium is the air-dried milky exudation obtained from excised unripe fruits. It is extensively smoked as an intoxicant. Commercial products are called Turkey Opium, Indian Opium, Persian Opium, Chinese Opium, and Egyptian Opium, and they differ in appearance and quality. Opium is largely used for manufacture of morphine, codeine, narcotine, laudenine, papaverine, and many other alkaloids. It is also the source of the toxic and extremely habitforming narcotic heroin or dimorphine, prohibited in some countries. Seeds contain no opium and are used extensively in baking and sprinkling on rolls and bread. Seeds are a good source of energy. They are also the source of a drying-oil, used for manufacture of paints, varnishes, and soaps, and in foods and salad dressing. Oil cake is a good fodder for cattle. Seeds used for preparation of emulsions (white-seeded varieties preferred); the bluish-black varieties are generally used for baking. Stems used for straw. Lecithin has been extracted from poppy seed meal. Seedlings are eaten as a potherb in Iran. As the peony flowered poppy, the opium poppy is widely grown as an ornamental, even here in the US, where it is illegal to grow.

Folk Medicine

Regarded as analgesic, anodyne, antitussive, aphrodisiac, astringent, bactericidal, calmative, carminative, demulcent, emollient, expectorant, hemostat, hypotensive, hypnotic, narcotic, nervine, sedative, sudorific, tonic, poppy has been used in folk remedies for asthma, bladder, bruises, cancer, catarrh, cold, colic, conjunctivitis, cough, diarrhea, dysentery, dysmenorrhea, enteritis, enterorrhagia, fever, flux, headache, hemicrania, hypertension, hypochondria, hysteria, inflammation, insomnia, leucorrhea, malaria, mania, melancholy, nausea, neuralgia, otitis, pertussis, prolapse, rectitis, rheumatism, snakebite, spasm, spermatorrhea, sprain, stomachache, swelling, toothache, tumor, ulcers, and warts. Hartwell (1967–1971) mentions opium as a remedy for such cancerous conditions as cancer of the skin, stomach, tongue, uterus, carcinoma of the breast, polyps of the ear, nose, and vagina; scleroses of the liver, spleen, and uterus; and tumors of the abdomen, bladder, eyes, fauces, liver, spleen, and uvula. The plant, boiled in oil, is said to aid indurations and tumors of the liver. The tincture of the plant is said to help cancerous ulcers. Smoking the plant is said to cure cancer of the tongue but I suspect it is more liable to cause it. The capsule decoction and an injection of the seed decoction are said to help uterine cancer. Egyptians claim to become more cheerful, talkative, and industrious following the eating of opium. When falling asleep, they have visions of "orchards and pleasure gardens embellished with many trees, herbs, and various flowers." Lebanese use their opium wisely; to quiet excitable people, to relieve toothache, headache, incurable pain, and for boils, coughs, dysentery, and itches. Algerians tamp opium into tooth cavities. Iranians use the seed for epistaxis; a paste made from Linum, Malva, and Papaver is applied to boils. In Ayurvedic medicine, the seeds are considered aphrodisiac, constipating, and tonic; the fruit antitussive, binding, cooling, deliriant, excitant, and intoxicant, yet anaphrodisiac if freely indulged; the plant is considered aphrodisiac, astringent, fattening, stimulant, tonic, and good for the complexion; in Unani medicine, the fruit is suggested as well for anemia, chest pains, dysentery, fever, but is correctly deemed hypnotic, narcotic, and perhaps harmful to the brain (Duke, 1983c). The plant provides a narcotic that induces sleep; a sleep so heavy that the person becomes insensible. When the Roman soldiers at Golgotha took pity on their prisoner on the cross, they added this poppy juice to the potion of sour wine. Its compounds are used in medicine as analgesic, anodyne, antipasmodic, hypnotic, narcotic, sedative, and as respiratory depressants and to relieve severe pain. Jewish authorities maintain that the plant and its stupefacience were well known among the Hebrews more than 2,000 years ago. The Jerushalmi warns against opium eating. Although the seeds contain no narcotic alkaloids, urinalysis following their ingestion may suggest the morphine or heroin addict's urinalysis (Duke, 1973).


Seed is reported to contain moisture, 4.3–5.2; protein, 22.3–24.4; ether extract 46.5–49.1; nitrogen-free extract, 11.7–14.3; crude fibre, 4.8–5.8; ash, 5.6–6.0; calcium, 1.03–1.45; phosphorous, 0.79–0.89%; iron, 8.5–11.1 mg/100 g; thiamine, 740–1,181; riboflavin, 765–1,203; and nicotinic acid, 800–1,280 mg/100 g; carotene is absent. Minor minerals in the seeds include: iodine, 6 mg/kg; manganese, 29 mg/kg; copper, 22.9 mg/kg; magnesium, 15.6 g/kg; sodium, 0.3 g/kg; potassium, 5.25 g/kg; and zinc, 130 mg/kg; the seeds also contain lecithin, 2.80%; oxalic acid, 1.62%; pentosans, 3.0–3.6%; traces of narcotine and an amorphous alkaloid; and the enzymes diastase, emulsin, lipase, and nuclease. Poppyseed oil cakes were estimated to have 88 feed units per 100 kg, 27.5% digestible crude protein and 25.6% digestible true protein. Per 100 g the seed is reported to contain 533 calories, 6.8 g H2O, 18.0 g protein, 44.7 g fat, 23.7 g total carbohydrate, 6.3 g fiber, 6.8 g ash, 1448 mg Ca, 848 mg P, 9.4 mg Fe, 21 mg Na, 700 mg K, a trace of b-carotene equivalent, 0.95 mg thiamine, 0.17 mg riboflavin, and 0.98 mg niacin.


Annual or biennial herb, 50–150 cm tall, glabrous or glaucous, sometimes with a few spreading bristles; stems slightly branched, erect leaves large, numerous, ovate to oblong, serrate to dentate-serrate, clasping at base, glaucous, the lower ones pinnatifid; flowers on long peduncles with nodding buds that expand into erect flowers; petals 4–8, white to purplish, in varieties also pink, violet, bluish, or red, 5–7 cm long; sepals glabrous, 1.5–2 cm long; fruit a capsule, ovoid to globose, glabrous, 4–6 cm long, 3.5–4 cm in diameter, with 8–12 rayed sessile stigmas; seeds oily, white, dark gray to black, or bluish. Fl. and fr. nearly year round in tropical areas, elsewhere in spring and summer.


Opium poppy has been cultivated for several thousand years and many cultivars have resulted, differing in flower color, opium production, color of seeds, oil content of seeds, and cultural requirements. Many variants are named, the best known are the "White Poppy" and the "Black Poppy" ("Blue Poppy"), named for color of seed. "White Poppy" has white to silvery-gray flowers, white seeds, and the capsule is somewhat flattened both at top and bottom. "Black Poppy" usually has violet flowers, seeds a slate color, and the capsule is smaller and and more globular. Many new hybrids being produced and classified according to seed yield, morphine content, and oil content. Hybridizes with P. setigerum and P. bracteatum. P. ssetigerum DC is one of the allotetraploids of P. somniferum, and is, perhaps, one of the ancestors of the cultivated opium poppy. Reported from the Mediterranean, Central Asian, and Near Eastern Centers of Diversity, or cvs thereof is reported to tolerate drought, frost, high pH, heat, limestone, low pH, slope, and virus (2n = 22, 20) (Duke, 1978).


Native and cultivated in Mediterranean region east to Iran; now cultivated in many tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate countries. Presently known to be cultivated for the opium in India, Iran, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, China, Manchuria, and Asia, and in other parts of Europe and India for the seeds. Cultivated in Japan and Australia for medicinal purposes.


Thrives in rich, well-manured soil, in hot to warm regions. Deep, warm, moderately moist, medium heavy soils, well cultivated, and limed meet the requirements for poppy growing. Soils with pH neutral or slightly alkaline preferable. Ranging from Cool Temperate Wet Steppe to Wet through Subtropical Dry to Moist Forest Life Zones, poppy is reported to tolerate annual precipitation of 3.1 to 17.3 dm (mean of 34 cases = 16.0), annual temperature of 5.6 to 23.5°C (mean of 34 cases = 10.9), and pH of 4.9 to 8.2 (mean of 25 cases = 6.5). It does poorly in the humid tropics.


Propagated from seed. Seeds germinate best at 15°C and are less sensitive to temperature than most poppy species. Seed sown in shallow furrows, at rate of 4–6 kg/ha. In some areas poppy seed, mixed with sand, is often broadcast over tilled fields in early autumn at rate of about 0.5 kg/ha, as in Asia Minor. Then fields are weeded in the spring when the poppy has grown to about 15 cm tall, and plants are thinned then to stand about 60 cm apart. They flower in April and May and the capsules are ripe in June to July. Optimum yields are obtained when plants are spaced 10 cm between plants and rows 32 cm apart, thus allowing space for mechanical cultivation. Yields of seeds are slightly higher when plants are spaced 30 cm apart than when 40 cm apart. Thinning and spacing do not affect the oil content of the seeds. Fertile soil is essential for good growth and land should be fertilized accordingly.


While nearly all parts of the poppy plant contain a white milky juice or latex, the unripe capsules, containing the juice in abundance, are used for extraction of morphine and other alkaloids. Minor alkaloids are extracted from the straw also. The capsule wall is traversed by a network of branching and anastomosing lactiferous vessels which contain the latex. In the green unripe capsule, the latex is richest in morphine; but as they turn yellow and ripen, the morphine content diminishes and the codeine and narcotine contents increase. Shortly after the petals and stamens fall, usually in the late afternoon or early morning while the temperature is low, transverse oblique or ventral incisions are made in the unripe capsules with a single-bladed knife having one saw edge or a several-bladed knife, care being taken not to cut through the inner wall of the capsule lest valuable juice be lost and the seeds injured. The white juice exudes and soon hardens in the outside wall of the capsule into brownish masses which are scraped off the following day on a wooden tray. The scrapings are later transferred to earthen vessels or larger trays or dumped on the ground, where the opium is kneaded by hand to a uniform consistency. It is then shaped into balls, cakes, or sticks, ready for marketing. Crude opium from the 3 or 4 lancings should be separated for medicinal use since it contains a higher percentage of morphine. Codeine content in poppy shows significant variation as a result of weather and heredity. Morphine content is highest during period 10–30 days after flowering.

Yields and Economics

Yields of opium are obout 0.4 to 0.9% with a dry morphine output equaling about 2 kg/ha. From field-harvested opium this would yield the standing biomass as residue. In Tasmania with 0 kg N and 0 kg P, Laughlin (1978) reported capsule yields of 1,197 kg/ha, seed yields of 1,712, and total plant yields of 7,948; with 0 P and 100 N, there were 1,220 kg capsule, 1,645 kg seed, and 8,273 kg total plant; with 0 N and 100 P, there were 1,286 kg capsules, 1,829 kg seed, and 8,785 kg total plant; while with 100 kg N and 100 kg P/ha, there were 1,452 kg capsule, 1,760 kg seed, and 9,910 kg/ha total plant. German studies [in Hortic. Abs. 01489 (049)] reported seed yields of 750–1,200 kg/ha and empty pod yields as 580–1,000 kg/ha. In his review, Loof (1966) suggests that averag seed yields of 1,200–1,800 kg/ha would be realistic under European conditions with non-lodging cvs and adequate moisture. Experimental yields have attained 3,000 kg/ha (Loof, 1966). Duke (1973) reports that in Scandinavia poppies yield 580 kg/ha crude fat and 300 kg crude protein. Although it is usually illegal to cultivate opium poppy for the opium as such, the need for morphine and other alkaloids for medicinal purposes has prompted many nations to grow opium poppy under controlled conditions. As many as 108 nations are known to be growing the poppy for one purpose or more. India produces huge quantities of poppy seed, exporting as much as 46,000 T annually. The United States imported 2,842.1 MT of poppy seed worth $2,336,200 in 1981, 804.9 MT from Australia worth $616,500, 6.8 MT from India worth $9,500, 16.0 MT from Mexico worth $12,100, 847.1 MT from the Netherlands worth $763,800, 15.0 MT from Poland worth $13,900, 223.0 MT from Romania worth $206,200, 19.6 MT from Singapore worth $14,600, 850.6 MT from Turkey worth $656,000, and 59.1 MT from Yugoslavia worth $43,600. On August 2, 1982, (Chemical Marketing Reporter) posted prices were ca $1.72/kg for Dutch material and $1.58/kg for Turkish seed.


With the seeds running 45–50% oil, we can visualize oil yields of perhaps 1,500 kg/ha, with an edible 1,500 kg oil cake, and perhaps another 2–8,000 kg straw for fueling processing.

Biotic Factors

Although some self-pollination occurs before the flowers open cross-pollination by insects also occurs. Some of the fungi attacking opium poppy include the following species: Alternaria brassicae var. somniferi, Cladosporium herbarum, Erysiphe polygoni, Fusarium scirpi var. caudatum, Heterosporium echinulatum, Macrosporium papaveris, M. bresdolae, Mucor mucedo, Ophiobolus sativus, Oidium erysiphoides, Peronospora arborescens, P. papaveracea, Rhizoctonia solani, Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, Trichothecium roseum. Plants are also attacked by the bacteria Bacillus (Erwinia) papaveri, causing bacterial blight, and Xanthomonas papavericola. The following nematodes have been isolated from the opium poppy: Ditylenchus dipsaci, Longidorus maximus, Meloidogyne sp., Pratylenchus crenatus, P. penetrans, and P. pratensis. Insect pests include: Aphis papaveris, Ceutorhynchus abbreviatus, C. albovittatus, C. maculaalba, Cynips minor, Dasynevra papaveris, C. callida, Lestodiplosis callida, Mamestra brassicae, Phytomiza albiceps, Sciophila wahlbomiana, and Stenocarus fuliginosus.


Complete list of references for Duke, Handbook of Energy Crops
Last update Wednesday, January 7, 1998 by aw