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Musings » Dangerous Garden: the quest for plants to change our lives
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Stuart, David
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Harvard University Press 2004

You don’t have to look far to understand David Stuart’s message. The beautiful painting on the front jacket is of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. It shows three separate flowers, one with pink petals, the others with orange and blue petals. The picture also shows several of the unripe grey blue capsules which are the business end of the plant. Very few plants are more seductively beautiful and dangerous at the same time. Atropa belladonna, deadly nighshade, comes close.

Right now I am immersed in a study of the opium poppy and have been reading this book with great care. We think of the poppy as having come from the mysterious East and indeed the glamorous blue poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia, is endemic to the Himalayas but the workhorse opium poppy arose in the southern Europe. The first records of it were found in a cave in Spain indicating its use 7000 year ago. The plant migrated around the Mediterranean at the hand of man into West Asia, Mesopotamia and eventually to India and Afghanistan.

Opium is the stuff of legend but in reality its effects are drearily mundane. Addicts lead very miserable lives with many essential bodily functions seriously distorted by the drug. The list of well-known addicts is very long and includes many excellent persons one would never have thought were hooked. This sad state of affairs was the result of opium being prescribed freely because there was nothing else so effective to relieve pain. Half the time it all happened quite accidentally but once involved the patients could almost never free themselves. It was not until aspirin was synthesized in 1899 that a safe and effective replacement for minor problems became available.

One would somehow expect famous poets and writers like Baudelaire and Keats to be opium addicts. It adds to their glamour even though we know it was nothing of the sort but how about Louisa May Alcott, Florence Nightingale and William Wilberforce the great abolitionist. All of these upright citizens were casually given opium for medical purposes and were dependent on it for the rest of their lives.

One of the most pitiful tragedies of that epoch was its indiscriminate use for infants. A screaming baby with colic or a child who was teething was immediately calmed by sucking on a pacifier drenched in an opium solution.

The principal difference between the addiction of earlier days and the present was the ease with which opium could be obtained quite legally thus obviating the need for criminal behavior.

The opium is extracted from the unripe poppy capsules over a very brief period. Within little more than a week the peak flow ceases and the capsule goes on to produce its thousands of harmless seeds. The remnants in the European caves indicate that the seeds were pressed to make oil and also eaten directly. Apart from the illicit crops of poppy in Afghanistan legal opium is produced in Turkey and some Balkan countries. The greatest need is still for legitimate medical and surgical purposes. Without opium and its derivatives modern surgery would be a barbaric business indeed.

David Stuart writes with his customary grace and incisiveness.The botanical and horticultural history is interwoven with social and medical history to give a clear eyed picture of this high stakes topic.