A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)
Forgotten, Rare, and Hardly Known Lettuce Greens
Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)
Family: Papaveraceae: poppy family
Other Names: garden poppy, mawseed, plant of joy, tears of Aphrodite (term also applied to other flowers); the LATEX IS ALSO CALLED “plant of forgetting,” “tears of the moon”
Healing Properties: reduces or stops coughing; eases cramps; increases desire (aphrodisiac); eases diarrhea, dysentery, and stomach cramps; reduces or stops pain; induces sleep
Symbolic Meaning: fertility, sleep, forgetfulness, death, comfort; Demeter/Ceres, Aphrodite, Cybele, Morpheus, Hypnos
Planetary Affiliation: moon
Most of us know poppy seed buns, bagels, and cakes. But who knows about young, tender poppy leaves as an addition to a green salad? Most would wonder if the bluish-green leaves are really edible; after all, the plant is known to produce opium—which can lead to madness or even death. But the young leaves have no nasty addictive alkaloids, and make for tasty additions to salads. The seeds—also tasty, nutritious, and devoid of opium—are harvested like other capsule seeds: by bending the ripe capsules into a paper bag and shaking them out. The seeds that fall on the ground in the process will sprout the following spring, and can be harvested once they form tender green rosettes, which the French traditionally enjoy in salads. François Couplan, a French expert on edible wild plants, confirms that neither the common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) nor the opium poppy (P. somniferum) contains psychotropic juice at the tender, rosette stage in their development (Couplan 1997, 73).
Poppy is one of the oldest cultivated plants. In northern Europe it’s been cultivated for so long it would appear to be an indigenous plant, but it arrived there with the first sedentary farmers (Linear Pottery culture) from the Fertile Crescent region. The oldest archeological findings in Europe are from New Stone Age peasant cultures that settled in the Rhine river area some 6500 years ago. Many poppy seeds and capsules were also found in lake dweller settlements (3000-2000 BC) such as at Pfäffikersee, a lake near Zurich, Switzerland. Poppies were most likely grown for their seeds, which contain lots of protein and some 40 percent nutritional oil, which has a high percentage of unsaturated essential linoleic acids. It’s also possible that the Stone Age peoples used the rosette as a vegetable and the sap for healing. We know through comparisons with other cultures that simple agricultural peoples seldom distinguished between edible and healing plants.
Illustration 101. Poppy, an important edible plant
The milky juice of the poppy contains some twenty different alkaloids, many with exceptional healing qualities. For one thing, opium happens to be the best remedy for dysentery—as many a traveler in the tropics may have experienced. The bitter narcotic sap, which the Greeks called “opos” (juice), is also one of the most effective painkillers. Depending on the dose, it can have a euphoric and extremely relaxing effect; at higher doses it can lead to hallucinations, labored breathing, reduced heart rate, coma, and even death. Opium’s many alkaloids, some in very low concentration, often combine with inactive components that delay their release in the intestinal tract. The danger of narcotic poisoning or addiction arises when chemically individual constituents are isolated and purified before being smoked or injected in large amounts (Weil 1983 125).1
Note that it cannot be assumed that the lake dwellers became addicted to the use of poppy juice. The mountain tribes in India—the Miao in Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), who cultivated opium poppy and even used it recreationally—did not develop any physical or psychic dependency.2
The poppy was a sacred cult plant in late Minoan Crete and Cyprus (1600-1100 BC). Several clay statues of goddesses from this time have been found, depicted with poppy seed capsules in their hands or in their hair bands. These capsules have slits in them, indicating that raw opium was extracted from them. In ancient Greece the poppy was associated with several goddesses: Demeter, the goddess of grain; Hera, the protector of women and marriage; the mother goddess Cybele, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The Greeks also dedicated the beautiful flower to both Morpheus, the god of dreams, and his father, Hypnos, the god of sleep. Many Classical scholars consider nepenthe—used by Greek physicians as a “medicine that lets one forget emotional distress and worries”—to have been a concoction containing opium. Homer (800 BC) is thought to have referred to nepenthe in book 4 of The Odyssey:
Then Helen, daughter of Zeus, took other counsel.
Straightway she cast into the wine of which they were drinking a drug
to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill.
Dioscorides (~40-90 AD) reported that the seeds could be eaten baked into bread or mixed with honey, and that one could make a sleeping medicine out of boiled poppy pods; in addition, just a small portion of the plant juice—the size of a small lentil—could be taken to calm digestion, but a larger dose could lead to somnolence and even to death. (An overdose of poppy paralyses the central nervous system.)
In medieval Europe poppies were mainly cultivated for their nourishing seeds and oil.3 However, doctors did use opium and henbane to prepare an anesthetic for surgical intervention. A tiny bit of the juice was also stirred into the porridge of children who could not sleep—the generic name “Papaver” (from the Latin papa = porridge, meal) is derived from this practice.
The plant has been used as an intoxicant since the Neolithic era. The modern, accelerated kind of use first appeared in the Middle East in Islamic circles; after the Koran forbad wine as an intoxicant, opium became a substitute inebriant, used to tranquilize harem ladies and as a mystical drug for Sufis. From there it spread to India and China, where it was known as a love potion. In the seventeenth century, after the Chinese emperor forbade the smoking of American tobacco, the Chinese began to smoke opium—sold at exorbitant prices by the British, who grew opium poppies on their plantations in colonial India. Masses of Chinese became addicted to opium smoking, to the point that the gold and silver reserves of China were nearly emptied. Then, when the emperor tried to prevent the lucrative trade of opium in the mid nineteenth century, the infamous Opium Wars ensued. Previously, the self-sufficient Chinese economy had not been dependent on any foreign trade at all, but opium had drastically changed that—as the British had hoped it would. The Brits then made a show of their might in the name of “free trade,” ending in humiliating defeat for the Chinese.
In North America during the Civil War opium was widely used to treat wounded soldiers, who often developed an addiction. Presumably the plant came to America with the European settlers. Sadly, even today opium still factors in world economics and global power politics, involving criminal syndicates as well as giant pharmaceutical corporations. Currently 95 percent of the world’s opium and heroin comes from Afghanistan—part of the reason for the wars waged there. There is, thus, a great tragedy surrounding this plant. According to a clairvoyant woman’s vision, the very friendly poppy-deva—who gives people food and healing—is deeply saddened by its misuse. According to her vision, some people get addicted in multiple lifetimes; as such, to start could be to never stop.
Despite all that, in eastern Europe the poppy has not lost its status as a quasi-sacred food plant. Poppy seeds are baked into treats the year around—especially at Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, and Pentecost. In Silesia it was a tradition to give the farm dog three poppy dumplings on Christmas Eve so that it would stay strong. The bowl used to make the poppy dumplings was filled with water—the number of seeds that floated to the surface determined how rich the next harvest would be. In Slavic regions the chickens were given poppy seeds on Christmas Eve—as many seeds as they pick, so many eggs would they produce. Another belief was those who eat enough poppy seeds during the Christmas days would not run out of money. On St. Andreas evening (November 30) girls would toss poppy seeds over themselves so as to dream about whom they would marry. In a tradition similar to one we learned about in the fennel chapter, farmers in Bohemia strew poppy seeds on a freshly dug up piece of turf in front of the barn door; as any wicked witch passing by would have to stop and count them—and of course, she would lose count again and again—she’d never manage any mischief. A similar belief could be found in western Prussia, where poppy seeds were strewn into the coffin of the deceased so as to thwart vampires. It’s a benefit to civilization indeed that evil beings can be so easily distracted from their evil doings!
Opium Poppy Leaves on Dandelion Leaves ✵ 2 SERVINGS
½ cup (115 grams) young, tender poppy leaves ✵ ½ cup (115 grams) young dandelion leaves ✵ 1 tablespoon sesame seeds ✵ 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds ✵ 2 tablespoons chopped almonds ✵ DRESSING: 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar ✵ 3 tablespoons hazelnut oil ✵ ¼ cup (60 grams) chives, finely chopped ✵ herbal salt ✵ 1 teaspoon caraway seeds ✵ pepper
Mix the poppy and dandelion leaves in a serving bowl. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and almonds. In a separate small bowl, mix the balsamic vinegar, hazelnut oil, chives, and caraway seeds. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle over salad and toss gently.