A surprising picture appeared in the Guardian newspaper towards the end of June. It showed fields, near Blandford, 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 Dorset to produce the medically-important pain killer morphine. But just how did opium poppies come to be grown across swathes of rural Dorset?
Opium and the opium poppy
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.
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 Thomas 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
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 Dorset, Hampshire, Lincolnshire and Oxfordshire.
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.