The rounded, urn-shaped pods of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) are the source of opium and its derivatives, heroin, morphine, codeine and laudanum. Used therapeutically, the latter three drugs are valuable for sedation and the relief of pain. However, because of the addictive nature of opium and opium-derived substances, they are subject to tight legal controls. The Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942 made it illegal to grow opium poppies in the United States and prohibits growing or possessing poppy plants without a license.
Legality and Confusion
Grown in large quantities in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, the opium poppy is also grown in small quantities by thousands of backyard gardeners all around the world. In the United States, this leads to a problem, as some seed companies and many home gardeners are engaging in illegal activities by selling and growing the plants.
Sometimes, to sidestep the legal issues, Papaver somniferum seeds and plants are sold under names of species subgroups, such as the double flowering forms, Papaver paeoniflorum or Papaver laciniatum.
Although other poppies are grown for their beautiful flowers, colorful petals are secondary for Papaver somniferum. The milky liquid present in unripe seed pods was tapped by the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans and processed into sedatives and pain remedies.
The Greeks referred to Papaver somniferum as the "poppies of Lethe," after the Greek river of forgetfulness. Pliny wrote of the properties of opium in the first century B.C.The addictive properties were also known early on and were described by 16th century herbalist John Gerard as "a mischief worse than the disease itself."
Legislation in the United States
Throughout the 20th century, Congress and a succession of presidents created regulations to control the use of opium and opiates and deal with abusers of those substances. The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 banned the import of smoking opium. The Porter Narcotic Farm Act of 1929 created the first two opiate addiction treatment facilities.
The Comprehensive Substance Abuse Act of 1970 established the current schedule system for classifying controlled substances including opiates and established the Drug Enforcement Agency and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The Heroin Trafficking Act of 1973 increased penalties for those convicted of distributing opiates.
Other Uses for Papaver Somniferum
The seeds of Papaver somniferum traditionally have been used for culinary purposes. Generally treated before commercial sale to prevent germination, poppy seeds are used as ingredients in everything from cakes to salad dressing, toppings for bread products and fillings for pastries. When pressed, the seeds also yield an edible oil.
Though most home gardeners who raise Papaver somniferum do so without interference from legal authorities, those who worry about possible legal problem can select from several other beautiful annual and perennial poppy species.
They include: Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicale); Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas); and the Oriental poppies (Papaver bracteatum, sometimes known as Papaver orientalis).
Annual varieties such as Iceland and Shirley poppies reseed readily, making them almost like perennials.