Tag Archives: poppy seeds

The opium fields of England

A surprising picture appeared in the Guardian newspaper towards the end of June. It showed fields, near Blandford, Dorset in South West England, painted lilac with the flowers of the opium poppy. This controversial crop, associated in many people’s minds with war-torn countries like Afghanistan, is now being grown commercially in England to produce the medically-important pain killer morphine. But just how did opium poppies come to be grown across swathes of rural England?

Opium and the opium poppy

Illustration Papaver somniferum0.jpg
Papaver somniferum as described in a 19th century German book (from Wikipedia, click on the picture for more details)


The opium poppy, or Papaver somniferum as it is more correctly called, is an imposing plant with fleshy grey-green leaves, showy pastel coloured flowers and impressive pepper pot seed heads. Standing up to a metre tall, the opium poppy brings architectural interest to the garden but it has a darker side. Within the seed head is a milky liquid containing a mixture of narcotic chemicals including morphine and codeine. If the unripe seed head is pierced, this latex seeps out and, left to dry, this is opium, prized for its extraordinary psychoactive powers.

Slaapbol R0017601.JPG
The unripe seed capsule of an opium poppy pierced to release the opium (from Wikipedia)


Humans have used opium for many thousands of years and the earliest written reference to the drug comes from the Middle East around 4000BC. The ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations were also well acquainted with the properties of the drug using it enthusiastically. Although growth of Papaver somniferum is typically associated with warmer climates, the opium poppy has a history of cultivation in the UK. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many houses in the East Anglian Fens grew a stand of white opium poppies so that the dried seed capsules could be used to brew a tea containing small amounts of morphine. This infusion helped counter the aches and pains suffered by people living harsh lives in what was then, a remote, unhealthy part of the country. Use was not confined to the Fens as  the Dorset-writerThomas Hardy, in The Trumpet Major, refers to poppy heads and pain relief.

By the 19th century, imported opium was freely available in the UK and was used extensively at all levels of society. Opium was supplied in many forms including laudanum, a tincture of opium in wine, popularised by the Dorset-born physician Thomas Sydenham. The drug was taken to relieve pain, to induce sleep and to treat cough and diarrhoea. Its euphoriant properties were also prized and recreational use occurred with some problems of dependence. Encouraged by the drug’s popularity, attempts were made in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to grow opium poppies commercially in the UK but these were abandoned in favour of imported Turkish opium.

From opium to morphine

Morphine was isolated from opium in the 19th century and the powerful pain killing and euphoriant properties of the pure drug were quickly recognised. These come at a price as, compared to opium, morphine has potentially dangerous side effects and is highly addictive. By the 20th century, all non-medical use was banned but, to the present day, morphine is widely prescribed to relieve moderate and severe pain especially after major surgery. Diamorphine (heroin) is also used for pain relief in the UK but we hear more about its illicit use, the problems of addiction and the associated criminal activity. All morphine used clinically is still obtained from the opium poppy, extracted either from crude opium or from the dried seed heads.

The 21st century opium fields of England

Poppy heads by Jane V Adams
Opium poppies growing near Bere Regis in Dorset, UK showing the seed heads (by Jane V Adams)


By the end of the 20th century, the morphine used for medical purposes in the UK was extracted from opium poppies grown in Tasmania and Spain. It was tacitly assumed that the climate in the UK was unsuitable for their commercial cultivation. In 1999, however, John Manners, a seed merchant from Oxfordshire questioned this doctrine. He had seen striking pictures of purple opium poppies growing commercially in Poland, and decided to have a go at growing the plants in the UK. He set up some small trial plots and grew the poppies successfully in the southern part of the country. But did they produce morphine when grown in the UK? With the help of the Scottish pharmaceutical company, Macfarlan Smith (now a division of Johnson-Matthey), he showed that indeed they did. A full field trial the following year in Oxfordshire was also a success and, by 2002, 100 hectares of opium poppies were being grown commercially in the UK, each hectare yielding about 15 kg of morphine. More farmers were persuaded to grow the crop and nowadays, early summer sees about 2500 hectares of farmland blooming with the unselfconscious lilac flowers, mostly in the counties of Dorset, Hampshire, Lincolnshire and Oxfordshire.

Poppy Fields - geograph.org.uk - 1361923.jpg
Opium poppies growing in Lincolnshire, UK (from Wikipedia)


Although they were initially uneasy about growing opium poppies, farmers now find it to be a lucrative break crop to prepare the land for growing cereals or oil seed rape the following season. Farmers contracted to Macfarlan Smith must prepare the seed bed and sow poppy seed supplied by the company which also advises on agronomy and pest control while the opium poppies are growing. The UK climate seems to suit the poppies well and after flowering they are left to dry before the seed capsule and about 5 cm of stem are harvested. The harvest is taken to a central processing facility where the poppy seeds in the capsule are separated leaving “poppy straw”. Poppy seeds contain little or no morphine and are sold for various culinary uses such as bread making. Poppy straw is processed in Macfarlan Smith’s Edinburgh factory where the morphine is isolated by solvent extraction and purification. About half of the UK requirement of medical morphine (~60 tons/year) is now made from poppies grown in the UK, including those grown in Dorset. So when you come across these beautiful lilac-painted fields next summer, think morphine, think pain relief, and think poppy extracts ending up in medicine cabinets in hospitals and pharmacies.

I should like to thank Marilyn Peddle (www.marilynjanephotography.co.uk) for generously providing the featured image which is of opium poppies growing in North Dorset
and Jane Adams (https://urbanextension.wordpress.com/) for generously providing the photograph of opium poppies growing near Dorchester.

This is a slightly  modified version of an article that appeared in the September edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The risks of eating poppy seed bread

Our local baker makes a very good wholemeal loaf which he garnishes liberally with poppy seeds. As I tucked in to a sandwich made from this excellent bread, I spared a thought for the governor of London’s Brixton Prison who recently suffered the exquisite embarrassment of failing a drugs test. Routine heroin tests for several inmates at the Prison had come up positive but the prisoners protested their innocence and challenged the governor to take a test himself. Generously he did and that’s when the embarrassment occurred. Eventually, the source of the “drugs” was traced to bread laced with poppy seeds. The seeds contain morphine and other opiates which register as positive in the prison-drugs test and although this story sounds like an urban myth, poppy seeds are now banned from the prison.

Poppy seeds
poppy seeds
Poppy seeds are used in many cultures as a food ingredient, for example to garnish breads and rolls, as an ingredient in cakes or ground in sauces and pastry fillings. The seeds are harvested from the dried seed capsule of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). The opium poppy is well known as the source of the powerful painkillers and drugs of abuse, morphine and codeine (opiates). Although the seeds themselves contain only trace amounts of the opiates, they can be contaminated by poor harvesting practices or insect damage so that commercially available poppy seeds contain varying amounts of morphine.


But does it matter that poppy seeds contain opiates? The EU clearly thinks it does matter because in 2011 it commissioned a huge report on the public health risks of consuming opiates in poppy seeds. Consumption of the seeds in food varies considerably across the EU but some Central-Eastern European cultures use poppy seeds widely. The report contains a mass of data and found that, although some groups may be consuming morphine at active levels from poppy seeds, few side effects are reported. One person did, however, report morphine-like side effects after consuming a meal sprinkled with a massive 75g of contaminated poppy seeds.

poppy seed bagel


Poppy seed-opiates also matter to people undergoing drug testing and there are numerous reports of failed workplace heroin tests, and lost jobs, after consumption of food containing poppy seeds. It may seem surprising but consumption of just one poppy seed bagel can lead to urinary morphine levels of 250ng/ml after three hours. Workplace heroin testing actually assesses morphine levels so that it can be difficult to distinguish between consumption of heroin (heroin is broken down to morphine) and of poppy seeds. To try to eliminate the poppy seed-false positives, the threshold for a positive test was raised from 300 ng morphine/ml to 2000 ng/ml in US Federal Workplaces in 1998. Not all employers follow this rule so that confusion can still arise. For similar reasons, US Federal Prisons forbid prisoners to eat foods containing poppy seeds and athletes undergoing routine drug testing are advised to avoid foods containing the seeds.

A better solution would be to find a heroin-specific test. Forensic scientists identified 6-monoacetylmorphine (6-MAM) as a heroin-specific metabolite found in the urine of heroin users and absent after poppy seed ingestion. In principle, this should deal with the confusion but 6-MAM is broken down fairly quickly in the body so that it can be missed. Very recently a team from King’s College, London have reported another heroin-specific metabolite, ATM4G, that they hope might provide the basis of a better test.

Some people have taken advantage of the presence of opiates in poppy seeds by steeping the seeds in water to release the active compounds. We could call this a poppy seed tea, and it should in principle produce low level opiate effects. The problem with these brews is that because the levels of morphine in the seeds are very variable so the potencies of the teas also vary in a largely unpredictable manner. Great care should be taken and there are more than a dozen reports of deaths occurring after consuming poppy seed tea owing to morphine overdose.

The poppy seed-opiate story also exposes an interesting conundrum. If someone takes morphine or even uses poppy seed tea we would call them a drug user. If another person eats poppy seeds, we would say that it’s part of their culture, even if they experience low-level morphine effects. All I know is that I shan’t stop buying my baker’s bread or his lemon and poppy seed cake!