Last Friday, our group visited the Botanical Gardens, Orto Botanico, in Florence. What I found most interesting was a single poppy plant, Papaver somniferum, or opium poppy.
It was planted among other “tossicita” or toxic plants like Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco) and Nerium oleander (Oleander). The plant was completely dried up and without its beautiful red flowers that we see all over Italy. (Although poppies come in all different colors!) All that remained on the plant were the dried up, grayish-brown seedpods with their signature flat tops.
Professor Starman pinched one of the seed heads off of its stem and cracked it open onto her hand. Hundreds of tiny black seeds spilled out. These are the seeds that would then be dried – to prevent germination – and used for eating and baking. The seeds only contain small amounts of opiates and are safe to eat in moderate portions.
Opiates are also cultivated from Papaver somniferum. Professor Starman explained how the fresh seed head of a poppy would be cut on the outside and a latex substance, opium, would ooze out. The same material from the plant that is used to make opium is used to make morphine and codeine, too. Alkaloids in the plant provide pain relief. However, like opium, the medicines also have addictive properties.
It is illegal to grow Papaver somniferum in the U.S. unless you have a special license from the DEA or work for a company growing them for food or medicinal uses. The legality of opium poppies varies widely across the nation. In Italy, small numbers of the plant can be grown as ornamentals but not for alkaloid collection.
I’ve been admiring the red poppies that line the Tuscany region since we arrived to Castiglion Fiorentino. Learning more about the less common and less seen opium poppy was very interesting!