Poppy Cultivation

In the Garden

In gardens the opium poppy presents few problems, except that it will often seed around in profusion. Seedlings should be ruthlessly thinned if they are to produce good strong plants. The ordinary single flowered forms grown in gardens have a range of colors, though pinks, purple and reds predominate, the petals sometimes with a delightful gradation of color reminiscent of shot-silk. Poor colored forms should be rogued out the moment they come into flower, otherwise after only a few years poor pinks and dirty purple will begin to dominate.

P. somniferum are vigorous, sometimes reaching 5ft (1.5m) tall, so they require plenty of space to develop. All of them having a pleasing, though somewhat heady fragrance, much loved by bees. Two of the more eccentric forms are the ‘Giganteum’, which has the largest fruits (seed capsule) and the ‘Hens and Chicks’ in which the main fruit capsule is surrounded by a halo of smaller pods.

It is part of our tradition to integrate the natural medicines which come from plants into our sense of health and healing. Often, such plants can be poisonous or healing, depending on how these plants are used. A small amount used occasionally can be a medicine. Too much of the same plant may be deadly. By understanding the nature of things, we come to know how best to use the herbs we grow.

Poppy Seedling
Papaver Somniferum Seeds


Outside, start the plants after the winter solstice if the winter is mild. If there is snow in winter, plant the seeds in the fall after the autumn equinox, so that the plants will start before heavy snow and lie dormant under the snow. Inside, store your seeds in the refrigerator until you are ready to begin germination. Poppies don’t like being repotted so start your seeds in appropriate sized containers to avoid transplanting problems. Sow multiple seeds in the container that you have chosen and rogue out all but a few of the more vigorous seedlings so that your plants have enough space. Maintain a soil pH of 5.8-6.4 for optimum growth.

Seeds germinate within 2 weeks. During the seedling stage, P. Somniferum requires large quantities of phosphates. In open agriculture, super-phosphate is added prior to seeding. Organic agriculture methods employ turning in bone meal and well rotted cow manure prior to seeding. Later in the development, more phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium are added.

In general, phosphorous application is made at or before seeding, with nitrogenous fertilizer added at the rosette and budding stage. As the young plants begin to send up flower stalks, pinch them back, this may make many flower buds instead of one bud on each plant. With the appearance of the flower bud, the last fertilization and irrigation are performed. P. Somniferum requires warm temperatures with no rainfall. A tall stalky plant is easily damaged by rain at this state. Also, the seed ripening process depends on a warm dry period. More importantly is the effect of rain or moisture on the accumulation of alkaloids in the milky juice. Water in the soil will dilute the milk in the vessels and reduce the alkaloid content. In addition, the total amount of opium produced is increased under warm-dry conditions. Thus naturally the plant does its best if flowering occurs during the period of the year with the longest days. When cultivated in the grow room you will want this to occur during a long daytime light cycle.

Generally, the poppy flower lasts only 1 or 2 days, after which the flower petals and stamens drop off and the central pistil remains. Pollination occurs just prior to the flower opening and wile it is fully open. After pollination, the central pistil enlarges, forming the seed capsule.


Opium Extraction

Unlike cannabis, which manufacturers its psychoactive ingredients at the local site where it is found on the leaf or flower bract surface, the poppy manufacturers its alkaloid pharmacologically active products in the root system and transports this through vessels to the ripening seed capsule.

The milk of the opium is in vessels in the young seed capsules as the seeds ripen. This capsule begins forming the day the flower petals fall from the poppy. The capsule is ready to be milked when the grey band where the petals were attached turns dark – almost black – about 2-3 weeks after flowering.

The milking of the capsule is begun with a tool in which an adjustable blade is used. To make the incision on the capsule, first one blade is used, and later 2 blades are used close together. At the start, only a series of dash-type cuts are made around the capsule near the top. In this fashion, the flow of milk from the capsule can be seen. The depth of the cut is adjusted for the size of the capsule.

The first cuts can be dashes approximately 1/4-1/2 inch long, one per day. A space of about 1/8 inch is left between the first dash-type cuts. The heavier the juice flows, the more the capsule can be cut the next day.

When the flow is full, cuts are made in almost complete circles instead of dashed lines, then with double blades placed 1/16-1/32 inch apart. The circle is never completely closed in this cutting or the milk flow stops. Cuts must start at the top of the capsule or the vessels will be broken. Each circular cut is about 1/16-1/8 inch below the one above. By sparing in the beginning, milk only a little. The plant will milk for more than a month if the double cuts are started about 1/2 the way down the capsule. The milking is begun each morning with the cuts. Later in the afternoon, the raw opium is scraped from the capsule. As the opium is collected, it is dried down as much as possible by drying it in the sun or with artificial heat.

Capsules on several plants must be left completely uncut for good seeds to be produced for future crops, depending on the number of seeds you need for the next season. When the seeds are ripe, small openings appear at the top of the drying capsule. The seeds that are ripe dry out and become light enough to blow out with the wind or direct air current. The unripe seeds are still wet and remain below in the chambers of the capsule.

Poppy Opium Latex
Opium Pod Scraping
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