An Eco-sustainable World
HerbaceousSpecies Plant

Papaver somniferum

Papaver somniferum

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L., 1753) is a herbaceous species belonging to the Papaveraceae family.

Systematics –
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
Eukaryota domain,
Kingdom Plantae,
Subkingdom Tracheobionta,
Spermatophyta superdivision,
Magnoliophyta division,
Class Magnoliopsida,
Subclass Magnoliidae,
papaveral order,
Papaveraceae family,
Subfamily Papaveroideae,
Papavereae tribe,
P. somniferum species.
The terms are synonyms:
– Papaver album Mill.;
– Papaver album-nigrum Crantz;
– Papaver amoenum Lindl.;
– Papaver amplexicaule Stokes;
– Papaver apodocarpum Hussenot, 1835;
– Papaver glabrum Gilib.;
– Papaver hortense Garsault;
– Papaver hortense Hussenot;
– Papaver indehiscens Dumort.;
– Papaver nigrum Bubani;
– Papaver nigrum Garsault;
– Papaver officinale C.C.Gmel.;
– Papaver opiiferum Forssk.;
– Papaver opiiferum var. album DC., 1821;
– Papaver paeoniiflorum (Alef.) Corrêa;
– Papaver polycephalum Bailly;
– Papaver polycephalum hort.;
– Papaver polycephalum hort. ex E.Vilm.;
– Papaver setigerum subsp. valdesetosum Maire;
– Papaver setigerum var. nigrum (Garsault) P.Fourn., 1936;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. albiflorum Wender.;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. album Schübl. & G.Martens.
– Papaver somniferum subsp. euroasiaticum Vessel.;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. hortense (Hussenot) Syme;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. hortense Arcang.;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. hortense Huss;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. nigrum (DC.) Thell.;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. nigrum (Willd.) Schübl. & G.Martens;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. nigrum Schübl. & G.Martens;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. officinale (C.C.Gmel.) Syme;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. officinalis Bonnier & Layens, 1894;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. subspontaneum Basil.;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. variegatum Wender.;
– Papaver somniferum var. album (Mill.) DC.;
– Papaver somniferum var. austroviolaceum Vessel.;
– Papaver somniferum var. coerulescens Rothm.;
– Papaver somniferum var. genuinovilaceum Vessel.;
– Papaver somniferum var. glaucum Rothm.;
– Papaver somniferum var. hortense (Huss) Rouy & Foucaud;
– Papaver somniferum var. hypoleucum Rothm.;
– Papaver somniferum var. laciniatum Wender.;
– Papaver somniferum var. leucum (Rothm.) K.Hammer;
– Papaver somniferum var. nigrum DC.;
– Papaver somniferum var. officinale (C.C.Gmel.) Garcke;
– Papaver somniferum var. pallidum Rothm.;
– Papaver somniferum var. plenum H.Mart.;
– Papaver somniferum var. poecilospermum Alef.;
– Papaver somniferum var. pullatum Vessel.;
– Papaver somniferum var. rubellum Vessel.;
– Papaver somniferum var. valdesetosum (Maire) Maire
– Papaver somniferum var. violiflorum Vessel.;
– Papaver stipitatum Hussenot, 1835;
– Papaver sylvestre Godr..
Within this species, the following subspecies and varieties are recognized:
– Papaver somniferum nothosubsp. authemannii (Rouy & Foucaud) B.Bock, 2012;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. nothoauthemanii (Rouy) B.Bock;
– Papaver somniferum subsp. somniferum;
– Papaver somniferum var. album (Mill.) Vessel., 1975;
– Papaver somniferum var. somniferum.

Etymology –
The term Papaver is similar to the Arabic papámbele and the Sanskrit papavara pernicious juice; according to some, of Celtic derivation, connected to the custom of putting the seeds in the pappa (papa) of children to make them sleep.
The specific somniferum epithet comes from sómnium sleep and from féro to bring: due to the sleeping properties of the plant.

Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
The opium poppy is an annual plant with an originally Mediterranean-Eastern-Turanian distribution but today present, usually as an adventitia, throughout the Mediterranean region.
In fact, contrary to popular belief, it is a plant that is not found only in the Asian mountains but is also quite common in Europe of which, as well as North Africa, it is native, where it finds the same calcareous soils.
In Italy it is found spontaneously in all coastal, hilly and low mountain areas (up to 1200 m), often infesting areas where the earth is moved for work (the seeds can wait dormant for several decades for the ideal conditions germination).
Its original habitat is disputed but appears to be from Macaronesia and the western Mediterranean region. On the other hand, the habitat in a truly spontaneous and natural situation is not known.

Description –
Papaver somniferum is a herbaceous plant, with an annual cycle, which has a tap root and an erect, slightly branched stem, generally not exceeding 150 cm in height.
It has alternate, large, simple and oblong leaves, with sinuous-toothed margins and no stipules; the basal ones have a short petiole, the upper ones are instead sessile.
The flowers are actinomorphic, hermaphroditic and terminal, with a long peduncle and a diameter that can reach 10 cm. The spontaneous variety in Italy has mostly purple flowers, with a darker spot at the base, but can also be red or white.
The calyx is composed of two deciduous sepals which dry with the formation of the corolla; the latter is formed by 4 large petals, folded in the bud, white, pink, red or purplish in color and with dark spots at the base.
The androecium is represented by numerous stamens surrounding a gynoecium which is composed of a poly-carpular and unilocular subglobose ovary, divided into incomplete septa and containing numerous ovules; the sessile stigmas are welded to form a flattened disk above the ovary.
The anthesis is between June and August.
Pollination is entomogamous and therefore takes place by pollinating insects attracted by the colors and the nectar produced by special glands, the nectaries, present in the petals.
The fruit is a treto, that is a large capsule dehiscent by means of pores located between the lobes of the stigma, which persists even after ripening.
It has whitish seeds with a reniform shape, with a reticulated-alveolar surface, a small embryo rich in endosperm. The seeds fall only after strong winds because the pores are located in the upper part of the capsule which does not bend when ripe.

Cultivation –
For the extensive cultivation of Papaver somniferum for commercial purposes, a specific authorization is required in Italy and other countries and is used especially for the production of morphine and opiates for medical use.
However, cultivars selected specifically for the size and color of the flower are available in various countries, for gardening purposes.
Cultivation for commercial purposes takes place above all in Spain, France, Australia and Turkey as regards the pharmaceutical industry, while in Asia and Central America for the production of smuggled opiates (mainly heroin). The world’s leading producer of opium destined for the illegal market is Afghanistan, followed by the countries of South-East Asia (Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka) and Mexico.
The blockade practiced on the theocratic regime of the Taliban led to a reduction in production and exports, bringing them to historic lows. The reopening of trade flows by the Northern Alliance, allies of the United States, following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, has allowed this country to once again become the world’s leading producer.
According to the World Drug Report of the United Nations Drug and Crime Control Agency, Afghanistan in 2007 produced 93% of the world’s non-pharmaceutical opium. Poppy cultivation is in fact one of the few profitable investments for farmers in poor and backward regions. The cultivated area amounted to 104,000 hectares in 2005 and 165,000 hectares in 2006.
Even though today many of the alkaloids used in medicine can be synthesized industrially (opioids), a large part of them is still obtained from the poppy, because the extraction process is cheaper.
In traditional cultural contexts, especially linked to the past Austro-Hungarian Empire, the cultivation of poppies for gardening or food uses is quite common in northeastern Italy (Trentino, Alto Adige, and the northern part of the Belluno area). In the national territory it is possible to find them sporadically in the wild or naturalized state, especially in the northern regions, even if not widespread compared to Papaver rhoeas and other species of Papaver. In the past, decoctions and infusions of P. somniferum (leaves, petals, with a low content of opiate alkaloids; sometimes the actual capsules, or rather the heads, i.e. the ripe or immature fruits, the part that is incised for the production of opium), under the name of “papagna”, were used in southern Italy as natural painkillers.
In the fields it is considered a weed due to its ability to reproduce easily, preferring calcareous soils.
Papaver somniferum is a plant mainly of subtropical regions, although it can be grown in the temperate zone and the tropics.
Usually grown at higher elevations in the tropics, it does not thrive in tropical lowland perhumid areas.
It can be grown at altitudes of up to 2,400 meters. It grows best in areas where annual daytime temperatures are between 15-24°C, but can tolerate 3-28°C.
Mature plants can survive temperatures down to about -5°C, but young seedling or shoot growth can be severely impaired at 0°C.
It prefers an average annual rainfall between 800 and 1,200 mm, but tolerates between 300 and 1,700 mm.
From a pedological point of view, it prefers a rich, well-drained sandy loam in a sunny position; it generally requires a moist soil but does not tolerate moist clays. It prefers a sandy substrate or calcareous soil with pH values in the range of 6.5 – 7.5, tolerating 6 – 8.3.
The opium poppy is a prolific seed producer and these have a very long viability in soil. The plants can often be found as weeds in open places and disturbed soils.
Seed yields of 2.2 – 3.0 tons per hectare are possible, although 1.2 – 1.8 tons are more common. The optimal yield of dry capsules is 2.0 tons.
There are many named varieties, some of which have been developed for their own edible uses.
The propagation takes place exclusively by seed with sowing in the open field.

Customs and Traditions –
Papaver somniferum is a plant whose scientific name underlines its psycholeptic properties due to the action of various alkaloids, mainly morphine, present in raw opium, a milky substance secreted by the typical seminiferous capsule that characterizes the genus Papaver.
In some countries, such as in Italy, it is often cultivated for ornamental purposes or for the production of edible seeds (especially in the Alps) and appears in a sub-spontaneous state in almost all regions. Cultivation in southern Europe has been proven since the Neolithic: texts in cuneiform characters dating back to 4000 BC have been found which mention the species as a medicinal plant.
In ancient Greece the opium poppy capsule was the symbol of Morpheus, the god of dreams, of Nyx, the goddess of the night, and of Thanatos, the god of death; the term ‘opium’ itself derives from the Greek ‘opos’ (juice). In the Roman Empire the plant was widely used as a medicine, but starting from the Middle Ages the cultivation was discouraged and reappeared only thanks to the influence of Arab medicine.
The species contains several narcotic substances, including morphine (from which heroin is obtained), thebaine, codeine, papaverine, and noscapine. The seeds, with a low alkaloid content, are commonly used in the cuisine of different cultures, from the Indian (they are used in the preparation of curry) to that of the Alps (where they are used, for example, to flavor bread); an edible oil is also obtained from them.
The species is also often cultivated for ornamental purposes, in various cultivars which sometimes (but not always) contain low doses of morphine (less than 1%), but high concentrations of other alkaloids.
In Italy and other countries the extraction of alkaloids is forbidden, but it is allowed to cultivate a small number of specimens for ornamental purposes.
Australia, Turkey and India are the major producers of poppies for medicinal purposes, while in Afghanistan the species is grown extensively for illegal drug production.
Papaver somniferum is a plant that was widely used in popular medicine to treat coughs, diarrhea and various pains. A very common use, especially in the South, was to soothe intestinal colic in infants and to keep restless children calm when their parents worked in the countryside.
The common name in the south for P. somniferum is “papagna” or “papagno” or in Central Sicily “paparina” which has become synonymous with “drowsiness” and/or “cazzotto”; even “papagna” has become synonymous with a strong slap due to the degree of stunning that the blow produces, like the drowsiness induced by this type of poppy.
The capsules, when ripe, open under the crown to let the seeds fall to the wind, contrary to some commercial, ornamental or seed-producing varieties, which remain closed, retaining the seeds, even when the capsule is dry, making it look like to a rattle that makes a characteristic noise when shaken. P. somniferum is considered a weed plant due to its excellent ability to spread very easily and is known for its resistance in the most hostile environments.
Papaver somniferum has many food uses.
The seeds are eaten raw or cooked.
They are particularly and frequently used as a condiment for desserts, bread, fruit salads, etc.; gives a pleasant nutty flavour.
The ground and sweetened seeds are used as a filling for crepes, strudels, pastries, etc.
It is a highly nutritious food, the seed contains about 22.7% of proteins, 48% of fats, 9.8% of carbohydrates, 7.1% of ash and, moreover, they are a good source of lecithin.
The seeds are quite small, but there are a large number of them contained in capsules 3cm or more in diameter and are therefore easy to collect and use.
The seeds are perfectly safe to eat, as they contain very little or none of the narcotic principles.
However, although the seeds do not contain narcotic alkaloids, urinalysis after ingesting them can produce results similar to urinalysis of morphine or heroin addicts.
The young leaves can also be consumed, which are edible, both raw and cooked; these must be consumed before the flower buds have formed.
In some countries they are eaten at the seedling stage.
Although some reports state that the leaves do not contain any narcotic ingredients, some caution is advised.
A high quality edible drying oil is obtained from the seed. It has an almond flavor and makes a good substitute for olive oil.
Medicinally the opium poppy contains a wide range of alkaloids and has been a very valuable medicine, especially useful for pain relief. Its use (especially of the extracted alkaloids opium and morphine it contains) can however be addictive, so it should be treated with extreme caution and used only under the supervision of a qualified practitioner.
The dried juice (latex) of the unripe green seed pots is a rich source of active alkaloids, including morphine. It is extracted by making shallow incisions in the capsules as soon as the petals have fallen. Care must be taken that the incisions do not penetrate inside the capsules and seeds.
The latex that comes out of the capsules, which dries in contact with the air, is then scraped off. This latex is anodyne, antitussive, astringent, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, hypnotic, narcotic and sedative.
In addition to its pain-relieving properties, latex has also been used as an antispasmodic and an expectorant in the treatment of certain types of cough, while its astringent properties make it useful in the treatment of dysentery, etc.
The dried latex yields a homeopathic remedy which is used in the treatment of a variety of ailments, including constipation, fevers and insomnia.
Among other sui it should be remembered that the seed produces from 44 to 50% of an edible drying oil which is excellent for lighting; burns longer than most oils. The oil is also used in paints, soap making, etc.
Poppy seed oil is a typical semi-drying oil that is used in artists’ paints, soaps after dehydrogenation, and oleochemical processing as a source of linoleic acid.

Method of Preparation –
The Papaver somniferum plant has found, since ancient times, various uses both in the food and medicinal fields.
As mentioned, the seeds can be consumed both raw and cooked, especially as a condiment for sweets, bread, fruit salads, etc.; gives a pleasant nutty flavour.
The ground and sweetened seeds are used as a filling for crepes, strudels, pastries, etc.
The young leaves or young seedlings are also eaten.
A high quality edible drying oil is obtained from the seed.
Medicinally, the opium poppy is particularly useful for relieving pain.
The latex that comes out of the capsules is anodyne, antitussive, astringent, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, hypnotic, narcotic and sedative.
In addition to its pain-relieving properties, latex has also been used as an antispasmodic and an expectorant in the treatment of certain types of cough, while its astringent properties make it useful in the treatment of dysentery, etc.
The dried latex yields a homeopathic remedy which is used in the treatment of a variety of ailments, including constipation, fevers and insomnia.

Guido Bissanti

– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
– Useful Tropical Plants Database.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed.), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore.

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Attention: The pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not in any way represent a medical prescription; we therefore decline all responsibility for their use for curative, aesthetic or food purposes.

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