Poppies and People

by Steven Foster |

Opium poppy, Papaver sominferum in bloom
Opium poppy, Papaver sominferum in bloom

Last week a bar conversation switched from the politics of medical marijuana to opium poppies, with someone asking lead question, “has anyone of you here ever seen an opium poppy?” “All of you have,” I replied. “They are a very common garden ornamental in Eureka Springs, in fact in every small town in America. The plant, an annual, Papaver somniferum self-sows and grows on it’s own. When I first met Dr. James A. Duke in 1978, (with whom I coauthored the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America, 3rd ed. in press, due April 2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), he had spent several years working on opium poppy germplasm collections for USDA in pre-revolutionary Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan; the region of the world where the genus Papaver  is native and has the greatest genetic diversity. Opium derivatives are used in every hospital in the world (assuming they have economic access).

The opium poppy Papaver somniferum is the source of several alkaloids used chiefly to relieve pain, the most important of which are morphine, codeine, noscapine, papaverine and thebaine, all extracted from crude opium, the dried white latex produced by the plant to make legal, pain-relieving drugs. Morphine was first isolated in 1806. Since ancient times, with origins lost in pre-history, opium and it’s derivatives have been a blessing and curse for humankind; a blessing in relief of severe pain, and a curse given physical addiction and potential for abuse. Opium use has brought down civilizations. Invented in 1898, heroin a more bioavailable form of morphine in which acetyl chains were added to the molecule, was routinely used in minute amounts for treatment of coughs (in place of codeine), during the first years of the 20th century. It was available in pharmacies as an over-the-counter cough remedy into the nineteen teens!  Around 1910 reports in medical journals began to associate heroin with  abuse and addiction. Finally, in 1924 it was banned from manufacture in the United States.

Currently over half of the world’s legal opium supply comes from the Australian island state of Tasmania, where about 500 farmers grow opium poppies on 49,420 acres of land. Today, we fight a war in Afghanistan where the opponent (the Taliban) is funded by sale of crude opium and opiate derivatives such as heroin. So I ask, since we have spent at least 700 billion dollars in Afghanistan since 2001, why don’t we just take a meager half-billion, and simply buy Afghan’s opium crop each year. That would cut funding to the Taliban, dramatically cut the world’s illicit heroin supply, and provide raw material for manufacturing legitimate opiate drugs used in EVERY HOSPITAL IN THE WORLD.  Or, we could just destroy it—a cheap remedy. No, political stupidity is too entrenched to follow a logical approach.

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Steven Foster

Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals. For forty-six years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram. Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.