Papaver somniferum, the Opium poppy, is the species of plant from which opium and poppy seeds are derived. Opium is the source of many narcotics, including morphine (and its derivative heroin), thebaine, codeine, papaverine, and noscapine. The Latin botanical name means the “sleep-bringing poppy”, referring to the sedative properties of some of these opiates. The opium poppy is the only species of Papaveraceae that is an agricultural crop grown on a large scale. Other species, Papaver rhoeas and Papaver argemone, are important agricultural weeds, and may be mistaken for the crop. It is also valuable for ornamental purposes, and has been known as the “common garden poppy”, referencing all the group of poppy plants. Poppy seeds of Papaver somniferum are an important food item and the source of poppyseed oil, a healthy edible oil that has many uses. Description Papaver somniferum is an annual herb growing to 100cm. All parts of the plant are strongly glaucous, giving a greyish-green appearance, and the stem and leaves are sparsely covered with coarse hairs. The leaves are lobed and clasp the stem at the base. The flowers are up to 120mm diameter, normally with four white, mauve or red petals, sometimes with dark markings at the base. The fruit is a hairless, rounded capsule topped with 12–18 radiating stigmatic rays. All parts of the plant exude white latex when wounded. History Use of the opium poppy predates written history. Images of opium poppies have been found in ancient Sumerian artifacts (circa 4000 BC). The making and use of opium was known to the ancient Minoans. Its sap was later named opion by the ancient Greeks, from whence it gained its modern name of opium. Opium was used for treating asthma, stomach illnesses, and bad eyesight. The First and Second Opium Wars among China, the British Empire and France took place in the late 1830s through the early 1860s, when the Chinese attempted to stop western traders smuggling opium into their country. Many modern writers, particularly in the 19th century, have written on the opium poppy and its effects, notably Thomas de Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium Eater The French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz used opium for inspiration, subsequently producing his Symphonie Fantastique. In this work, a young artist overdoses on opium and experiences a series of visions of his unrequited love. Opium poppies (flower and fruit) appear on the coat of arms of the Royal College of Anaesthetists. Legality Opium poppy cultivation in the United Kingdom does not require a license, but extracting opium for medicinal products does. In Italy, it is forbidden to grow P. somniferum to extract the alkaloids, but small numbers of specimens can be grown without special permits for purely ornamental purposes. Unlike in its neighbour countries Austria and Switzerland, where opium poppy is still cultivated legally, it has been delegalized in Western Germany after World War II, extending this regulation after German reunification in 1990 also to territories of former GDR, where opium poppy cultivation had remained legal until then.
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