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Herb of Heaven or Hell

(Papaver Somniferum)

(photograph courtesy of Poppies International)



Opium Poppy, Mawseed, Herb of Joy, Mohn, Klapper-Rosen, Mago, Magesamen, Weismagen, wilder Magen, Magensaph, Rosule


The Opium Poppy is an herbaceous annual which grows to between 70 cm and 130cm tall. Their showy flowers have made them popular with gardeners and many varieties are cultivated throughout the temperate regions. The wild variety has pale whitish pink petals with a large dark dot at their base. Cultivated varieties are pink to red and even dark purple; some have a single arrangement of petals, others are double. There are even some with frilly flower heads, the variations are truly amazing. The center of the flower head is occupied by a prominent many-rayed stigma surrounded by a multitude of stamens. Once the flower is fertilized the petals soon drop off and the seed capsule begins to swell. Depending on the variety the seed capsule can take many different shapes and sizes. That of the wild Papaver somniferum is almost spherical with a star shaped, flattened top that lifts off as the capsule dries out, creating little openings underneath the rim through which the seeds can disperse. The color of the seeds also varies depending on the specific variety and can be anything from almost white to bluish-black.

The stems grow very straight and are quite tough and somewhat rubbery. The leaves are indented and clasp the stem. All green parts of the plant are glaucous and contain a milky latex which oozes out if any part is wounded. Once it dries the latex turns brown - the substance known as raw opium.

Habitat and Ecology

The genus Papaver comprises about 100 species distributed throughout the temperate regions of the world. Opium Poppies (Papaver somniferum) are often confused with their close relative, the Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) a common wild species that does not share the psychoactive properties of the Opium Poppy. The species can be distinguished by their size and color: Opium Poppies tend to be larger, with big, white to purplish flowers and large, globular seed capsules. The Corn Poppy tends to be quite small, with bright scarlet-red petals and small, elongated more oval seed capsules. Related New World species that are used medicinally by Native Americans include the Prickly Poppy (Argemone polyanthemos and A. mexicana) and the State Flower of California, the Californian Poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Although the chemistry of these species is somewhat similar to that of Papaver somniferum, their alkaloid content is far less concentrated. Interestingly, their ethnobotanical uses have not been entirely dissimilar: Native Americans used these Poppy relations as anodynes, antispasmodics and sedatives as well as for external applications to treat burns, sores and cuts and as a wash to get rid of lice. Opium Poppies are not native to the New World, although some of the eastern tribes adopted them for medicinal purposes and used them in much the same way as the settlers did who brought them here.

It is difficult to establish with any certainty just where Papaver somniferum originated or exactly who its genetic parents might have been. Most researchers now agree, however, that the Mediterranean region of Asia Minor is its most likely place of origin, from where it is thought to have spread east into Asia, south into northern Africa and north into Central Europe. Today they are found as far north as the UK, though they rarely appear in the wild. The ones that are found in the wild tend to be garden escapees.

Poppies like to grow in association with corn, and both plants were once considered sacred to the corn-goddess Demeter. In Central Europe the closely related Scarlet Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) still commonly grows among the corn. It too has a history of medicinal use but its action is much milder than that of Papaver somniferum.


Beautiful to behold are the delicate Poppy flowers as they waft softly in the summers breeze - alas, it is a short-lived beauty. Here one day, gone the next, the fleeting splendor only lasts a few days before the falling petals reveal a bulging seedpod, the true keeper of the Poppy's secret*. In time, as the seedpod ripens its star-shaped top will lift to release thousands of tiny grey-blue seeds familiar to every child as toppings and flavoring of breakfast rolls and other baked goodies. Gourmet chefs value the oil that can be pressed from these seeds for its delicate nutty flavor.(1)

But Poppies have much more to offer than as ingredients for culinary refinement. Within their fleshy leaves and stems, but most of all in their unripe seed capsules flows a white, milky juice, which the ancients knew as 'opion' (2). This substance has been used medicinally, ritually and recreationally for thousands of years and indeed has changed the course of history to no small extent. Its gifts are a double edged sword though, promising relief from physical and emotional pain, yet if taken regularly it traps the body and mind into addiction and self-delusion, causing destruction, dependence and even death to those that succumb to its seductive powers. Nevertheless, as Paracelsus put it so many centuries ago: all things are poisonous; it is a matter of dosage whether a substance kills or cures. Poppy is no exception to the rule and throughout the history of its use it has certainly brought great relief to millions of suffering people.

Poppies have indeed long been companions of the human race. Archeological evidence suggests that their use dates back as far as Neolithic times implying that they have once played a significant role in human culture, probably over a period of many thousands of years. Opium and Poppy remains have been found at Neolithic settlements, burial sites and in the graves of Egyptian Pharaohs, which were also decorated with paintings of Opium Poppy, Mandrake and Blue Water Lily.

Contrary to popular belief Poppies do not appear to have come from the East, but are native to the Mediterranean region, though botanists still argue over just which of the wild species are the parent plants of Papaver somniferum, or Opium Poppy, as it is usually called. The earliest written records were found in Sumeria and date to about 2000 B.C. Here it was known as 'Hul Gil' - the Herb of Joy. It is believed that Poppy and the knowledge of its powers spread from Sumeria throughout the Middle East to Babylonia, Assyria and Egypt as well as to Persia and Greece. The famous Egyptian Ebers Papyrus (1500 B.C.) mentions it and recommends its use as a remedy for 'the excessive crying of children', a use which has remained popular in some parts of Northern Africa and Europe even to the beginning of this century. It was thought, however, that while it kept children quiet it also made them stupid. Then as now physicians were well aware of the potential dangers of opium, although addiction did not appear to have been as much of a problem in those days.

In the days of antiquity Opium was widely used and highly valued for its medicinal powers. Then as now it was regarded as the single most effective painkiller (though these days we use it in a more refined and hence more potent and more dangerous form). Furthermore, it was used as a sedative, to calm hysterics and soothe melancholy. It was considered to be one of the best remedies for healing colic, diarrhea and persistent spasmodic coughs. On the more recreational side, it was also considered a potent aphrodisiac and as such enjoyed a widespread reputation throughout the ancient world. Most famously, Queen Cleopatra's reputed love-potion is said to have been a combination of opium and some type of nightshade, (probably mandrake), steeped in palm-wine.

Opium is mentioned in all the ancient works of medicine, from Hippocrates to Avicenna, to Dioscorides and Galen. Dioscorides describes the process of obtaining this latex in detail:

"Those who wish to obtain the sap (of the Poppy) must go after the dew has dried and draw their knife around the star in such a manner as not to penetrate the inside of the capsule, and also make straight incisions down the sides. Then with your finger wipe the extruding tear into a shell. When you return to it not long after, you will find the sap thickened and the next day you will find it much the same. Pound the sap in your mortar and roll the mass into pills."

In ancient Greece, Poppy was considered sacred to Hypnos, the God of sleep who is often depicted holding Poppy capsules in his hands and adorning his head. They also guarded the gateway to his drowsy realm. He brought prophetic dreams and soothed the pain of those suffering from emotional trauma. At the temple of Aesclepius on the Greek island of Cos, it was used in a form of sleep therapy, which consisted of dosing the patient with a brew of Opium, to induce visionary dreams that would reveal the method and agents which could affect the cure.

The Romans identified Hypnos with their own God of sleep, whom they referred to as 'Somnus', a name which still echoes in Poppy's Latin name 'Papaver somniferus' - somnus ferre - bringer of sleep. But Poppy was also associated with Thanatos or Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, who rules the realm of the dead - excessive use of the milky juice can also bring eternal sleep. Such myths reveal Poppy as a plant of the Underworld, an association, which apparently dates to prehistoric times as the above mentioned archeological evidence confirms. The Poppy remains found at Neolithic graves presumably were intended to help the departed on their journey to the Underworld.(3)

Poppy was also considered sacred to Demeter, the Earth-Goddess, who taught wo/mankind the art of grain cultivation, notably wheat and barley, which Poppies love to mingle with. Their bulging seedpods, containing a myriad of tiny seeds serve as a perfect symbol of fertility. No doubt the aphrodisiac qualities of opium featured prominently in the fertility rites of this benevolent Goddess. Some scholars believe that opium may have been an important ingredient of the secret ritual drink at the Elysian Mysteries. Unfortunately we shall never know for sure; the recipe for this famous potion ranks among the best-kept secrets of the ancient world.

According to another myth, Poppy was supposed to have sprung from the tears of Aphrodite as she mourned the loss of her lover Adonis. Cyprus, the birthplace of Aphrodite, was one of the major regions of Poppy cultivation and it was from here that Poppy or Poppy products were first shipped to Egypt. Due to its association with Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and the aphrodisiac properties of opium Poppy became very popular for use in folkloristic love magic during the Middle Ages. Poppies was the herb of choice for numerous love charms, philters and potions. They also served as a medium of simple love divination rites, which promised to foretell the outcome of a love affair or reveal the identity of a future husband. Typically the inquirer would write a question on a piece of parchment and conceal it in the seed capsule, which he or she would then place underneath their pillow in order to obtain a prophetic dream.

The mass of tiny seeds hidden in the round-bellied capsule has long been considered a symbol of fertility and prosperity. To convey these magical powers as a blessing of abundance for the New Year, it was customary to prepare a sweet-bread made with Poppy seeds as a magical food for New Year's Eve. Alternatively one could utilize these properties by making a necklace with gilded Poppy heads, which could be worn as a charm. Interestingly though it was thought that Poppy seeds hidden in the shoes of a bride would render her infertile.

Other magical uses included an invisibility potion, which was thought to infer invisibility at will - probably in allusion to Hades whose cap of invisibility, (which he wore to conceal himself while he abducted Persephone), was thought to suggest a Poppy capsule. Poppy seeds were regarded as an effective aid to ward of daemons and vampires. If one was pursued by one of these evil creatures one should toss a handful of seeds on the path behind. The daemons in pursuit would be stopped in their tracks, forget their original purpose and feel compelled to stop and count the seeds instead.

While opium was commonly known and widely used for medicinal, recreational and sacred purposes in the ancient world, it was Andromachos, the personal doctor of Nero, who popularized their use. Nero had ordered him to produce a medicine which would ease all pain and disease, and the physician invented 'Theriak, a potent potion consisting of about sixty different plants and substances, including opium. Galen later refined the brew and renamed it Galene. It soon achieved the status of a panacea and became popular throughout Europe. This potion was expensive though and some of the ingredients were difficult to obtain. During the Middle Ages, with the rise of 'heroic medicine' the medical use of opium subsided and it was rarely employed by the unsympathetic doctors of the time. Eventually, Paracelsus created a simplified version of the original Theriak recipe, which proved extremely effective and soon surpassed the popular appeal of the original remedy. His concoction however was compounded into pill form and became known as 'Laudanum Paracelsi'. The marked effect of these pills as a highly effective painkilling remedy was probably due to the addition of lemon juice, which subtly changes the chemistry of opium and enhances the anodyne action. Henceforth laudanum was praised as a panacea supposedly effective for every ailment except leprosy. The glowing reports regarding the wondrous powers of the drug kept mounting, yet supply was often slim. Scientific curiosity spurned numerous experiments and in their course gave rise to the groundbreaking invention of the hypodermic needle, first employed by Christopher Wren in an experiment designed to prove the theory of blood circulation. To demonstrate the theory he injected the hind leg of a dog with a solution of opium, and sure enough the drug rapidly took effect over the entire body of the dog. In 1680, the English Doctor Thomas Sydenham revised Paracelsus' potion once again. In an attempt to purify the raw drug and rid it of the impurities, which seem to cause 'sickness' if taken in excessive quantities, he mixed it with sherry wine, saffron, cinnamon and cloves and named the brew Sydenham's Laudanum. Suddenly a proliferation of opium based products such as Venice Treacle, Mithridate, London Laudanum and Dr. Bate's Pacific Pills became increasingly popular, and the available opium could hardly cover the demand. Nevertheless, Laudanum soon became a household name and doctors prescribed routine dosing as a preventative remedy twice a week. It is hardly surprising that the first serious cases of opium addiction in the West arose due to this excessive prescription of Laudanum. The problem was compounded by the fact that Laudanum was often over-prescribed for children, which resulted in increased resistance to the drug in adulthood.

In 1700 Dr. John Jones published a book called 'The Mysteries of Opium Revealed' which extolled the properties of opium, its uses and effects and also reported on its pleasant side-effects and symptoms of addiction, filling no less than 400 pages. While his work was clearly biased and likely to have been strongly influenced by the authors own intimate relationship to his subject matter, it did contain a grain of genius: Jones was the first to intuit that opium actually imitated substances already present in the body. It took another 400 years before scientists actually discovered these substances, which subsequently became known as endorphins.

Debate and experimentation continued. In 1799 a young German pharmacy apprentice by the name of Friedrich Sertürner, observing that the effects of opium seemed to vary considerably from batch to batch, became convinced that this must be due to the varying presence of one active ingredient of the raw opium. It took him only four years to isolate a substance, which he called 'morphine' in allusion to the Greek God of sleep. Erroneously he believed that this purified compound was free of the unpleasant side effects of opium, based on the fact that only a tiny amount of morphine was necessary to induce effects that were far stronger than those of raw opium. It did not take long before several pharmaceutical companies started to churn out morphine by the bucket load. Wren's earlier invention for injecting opium subcutaneously soon became perfected and took the form of what we now know as hypodermic syringes. The invention was rationalised with the argument that injecting morphine directly into the blood stream could triple its potency. Morphine and Heroine epitomize the ill-conceived idea of a scientific future: scientists in laboratories priding themselves for 'perfecting nature' and Doctors praise the miraculous powers of their current wonder drugs, prescribing them with little discrimination or concern - it's the same story, then and now, only the names of the current 'miracle drugs' seem to change.

The story of the Opium Poppy serves to illustrate many important lessons. Most significantly perhaps it shows that our misguided attempts to 'improve on nature' more often than not result in disastrous consequences. Nature has many wonderful gifts to offer, but we must take care to use them with due respect, lest our attempts to manipulate these blessings turns them into demonic forces beyond our control.

(The history of poppy also has a very interesting, dark and thought provoking political aspect, which is beyond the scope of this article to explore. However, anybody who is interested in this plant and the issues it entails should read up on the history of the opium wars - the consequences of which still linger on even today.

Medicinal Uses

Parts Used:

Seeds, latex, leaves, petals


Contains about 40 different alkaloids. The most prominent being morphine, Codeine, Thebaine, Papaverine and Noscapine


Analgesic, narcotic, sedative, antispasmodic, anti-diarrheal, antitussive, diaphoretic, aphrodisiac


The dried latex rolled into pills in combination with other substances has long been valued as a highly effective painkiller. As a sedative it is used to bring sleep to agitated children and patients suffering particularly painful conditions. It has also been employed to calm hysterical or otherwise mentally or emotionally disturbed patients. Its anti-diarrhoeal properties still make it one of the most powerful agents for the treatment of colic and dysentery. It is also used as an antispasmodic in cases of gall-bladder colic and spasms. Its anti-tussive action is still highly valued and widely used as an ingredient in all kinds of cough remedies. It is invaluable in treating persistent spasmodic coughs (Codeine- alkaloid of Opium) and in the past was much used for the treatment of tuberculosis. As an aphrodisiac it plays an important role in treating sexual problems such as impotency and premature ejaculation, though these uses play a greater role of importance in Ayurvedic medicine where healthy sexual function is considered essential to good health in general.


Opium, Morphine and Heroin are all highly addictive substances, besides which they are also highly illegal. Excessive opium use can lead to serious health problems and even cause death. Even small quantities can cause severe constipation. This article is intended as an educational resource not as a guide to self-medication or to encourage the use of illegal drugs.

Status: In most countries it is illegal to cultivate Poppies without license, though in Europe it is commonly grown as an ornamental. Harvesting opium, however, is strictly prohibited everywhere. The dried seedpods and the seeds are legal and available commercially. The dried seed pods are popular items for dried flower arrangements and flower ornaments. The seeds are used for culinary purposes.


Poppy cake

100g Butter
100g Sugar
4 eggs
100g ground poppy seeds
30 g candied lemon and orange peel
½ cup confectioner's sugar
Butter and breadcrumbs

Take a 24 - 26 cm diameter cake tin (springform) and grease with butter or margarine. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and preheat the oven to 200C.

Cream the butter and sugar together until the mixture is quite light and fluffy. Separate the eggs and carefully stir in the egg yolks, one by one. Last but not least, stir in the candied fruit peel and the ground poppy seeds.

Beat the egg whites stiff and lift carefully lift underneath the dough. Pour the mixture into the cake tin and level the top. Place onto the middle shelf in the oven and bake for 45 minutes.

Let the cake cool down on a grill sheet. Sprinkle with the confectioners sugar. For more elaborate decoration use a baking template.

For variation on the theme you could experiment with adding ground nuts (hazelnut or walnut) or raisins to the cake mixture.


1) Poppy seed oil is much revered among gourmet chefs for its nutty in flavour and its resistance to oxidation. A white flowering variety with white seeds yields the greatest quantity of oil. Seeds do not contain any of the alkaloids associated with opium. The oil is rich in polyunsaturated fats (62%) and essential fatty acids. Nutritionally it is one of the most valuable oils - unfortunately much underused. The expressed seed cake was formerly given to cattle as a nutrient rich food.

2) opion = milk juice=latex~

3) Sleep is often referred to as 'little death

© Kat Morgenstern, 1997

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This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.


Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.