POPPY (PAPAVER SPECIES)
All poppies are poisonous, but not all contain opium. The Oriental or opium poppy (Papaver somnifera) is a native of Eurasia, where it has been cultivated for more than 6,000 years. Because of its narcotic properties, its growth is restricted in North America, but it is still frequently found in old gardens and nearby waste areas to which it has escaped.
The corn poppy, associated in Canada with World War I and the remembrance of war dead, is a European native that colonizes disturbed soil in Nova Scotia. It is often cultivated, together with Californian and Icelandic varieties, in local gardens.
Poppies are generally tall annuals with large red, white, or yellow flowers shaped like cups. The round seed capsules contain tiny black seeds, which are used as a condiment. They contain only minute traces of toxic alkaloids.
Poisoning occurs from ingesting the unripe seed capsules and from the illicit use of opium and its derivatives: codeine, heroin, and morphine.
Poppy seeds are harmless and edible, but all other parts of poppy family members contain toxins.
Alkaloids, including morphine and codeine, which in the opium poppy are combined to produce the resinous, addictive drug, opium. It is harvested commercially in the Middle East and Asia by gathering and processing latex from the unripe seedpods. The illegal drug heroin is a concentrated extract of opium. Many of the same alkaloid toxins found in the poppy family are also present in the otherwise unrelated bleeding heart.
TYPICAL POISONING SCENARIO
Though morphine and codeine have legitimate medical applications, most human poisonings and fatalities are the result of deliberate abuse of opium, heroin, or other poppy products. Occasionally, bloodroot is accidentally ingested, with dangerous results.
Opium affects the body by mimicking naturally occurring compounds in the nervous system that function as sedatives, pain suppressors, and mood elevators. Not surprisingly, then, poppy poisoning is marked by erratic behaviour, loss of appetite, stupor, and coma. Overdoses of opium or its derivatives cause death by respiratory failure. Bloodroot poisoning causes vomiting before fainting and potentially fatal coma set in.
POPPY POISON INFORMATION
Alkaloids are nitrogen-bearing alkaline chemicals that originate in plants. They are derived from amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which especially affect the nervous system. At least 40% of all plant families include plants that contain these compounds.
Many plants have different alkaloids present, each with a specific activity. Some alkaloids are useful medicines; others are harmful, even fatal. Most are bitter tasting. The liver, with the assistance of enzymes, processes the alkaloids that enter the body, rendering some harmless there, while making others more toxic.
One common alkaloid, which many of us seek daily, is caffeine.