King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

Medical and other uses of opium

The opium poppy has been used in medicine from before the time of Hippocrates and the use of its derivative morphine to alleviate the suffering of the gravely ill or wounded is well practised.

A white poppy, pictured both with a closed bud and as a flowering plantA white poppy and its budThe use of another derivative, heroin, as an illegal drug is also unfortunately prevalent and the addiction and resulting health and crime issues this use precipitates are a problem which many societies face.

Opium has also been used recreationally by artists and writers as a drug that can stimulate artistic insight and its effects were famously described by Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) in his Confessions of an English opium eater.

Coleridge’s poems The rime of the ancient mariner and Kubla Khan also include dream-like sequences likely to have been inspired by the author’s opium use.

The desire by artists, writers and musicians to widen their psychological perceptions through the use of the many psychotropic ‘fruits of the earth’ is well-documented and can lead to both inspirational creativity and catastrophic psychological breakdown.

Other plants widely used by people to alter their mental states – to vastly different effects and strengths –  include cannabis, alcohol, peyote and magic mushrooms. The illustration here is of a white poppy, which grows widely both in Asia and other parts of the world. Its Latin name, papaver somniferum means ‘the sleep-inducing poppy’.

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