Papaver somniferum (2011)

A depiction of the lush, sensory-rich, alternate reality that is intoxication. A waking dream – opium’s sinuous warmth – and the comfortable python-slow grip of escaping a drab turn of the century factory worker existence by indulging in a fantasy world of orientalism and feminine allure – another time, another place – all in the convenience of one’s own mind.



It has been around a long, long time. Fossils have been found in Neolithic settlements. There are tablets describing its cultivation and use in Sumeria in 3400 BCE.Egypt to the whole of the Mediterranean seaboard. Constantinople was thought to have been the first to supply it to Europe in the 14th century Ottoman Empire, long before China did.

Paracelsus (a Swiss Renaissance physician & botanist, born Phillippus von Hohenheim) is thought to be among the first Western physicians to have devised a fixed recipe which centered around it. He called his recipe laudanum. The very sensual sounding ingredient list was reputed to have included: crushed pearls, musk, amber, coral, castor, ambergris, nutmeg, derivatives from a stag’s heart, and chiefly, our ingredient in question: Papaver somniferum.  It was a solid compound, not to be confused with English physician Thomas Sydenham’s alcohol-based liquid laudanum, which was devised a century later, in the 1660’s.  Sydenham’s laudanum contained 2oz Papaver somniferum and 1oz saffron, dissolved in a pint of sherry wine, with powdered cinnamon and powdered clove mixed in.

For the purpose of our story, Papaver somniferum might be better recognized by its common name:  opium.

One might wonder what on earth physicians were prescribing such lushly complex opium concoctions for.  The list of what it was NOT prescribed for would have been much shorter.  In a very short time after it was introduced to the world of western medicine, opium rapidly became a favorite “cure-all”.

By 1820, it was recommended for practically every ailment and mixed with just about everything you could think of: mercury, hashish, cayenne pepper, ether, chloroform, belladonna, whiskey, wine and brandy – and prescribed to both adults and children alike.  It became as much a medical standard as penicillin is today.  It is estimated that by the late 19th century, there were between 150,000 – 200,000 opiate addicts in the U.S., and 2/3 to 3/4 of these addicts were women, as it was dispensed without restraint to relieve any “female problems” a doctor would diagnose.

While the doctors were championing its medical use in the 1850’s, large numbers of immigrants from both China and India were coming to the U.S., spurred on by the California Gold Rush, coupled with an attempt to escape famine in their home countries.  Recreational opium dens had been in existence from the 14th century up through the 1800’s in these two countries.  Additionally, French sailors acted to disseminate the commonly-accepted opium habit they had acquired in what was French Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) – where opium was an important French government-endorsed source of revenue.  Xenophobia in the U.S. and the widespread smoking of opium thus resulted in opium dens being be exaggeratedly depicted as sinister places of vice, gambling, white slavery, violent altercations, corruption of youth, and potential sites of overdose death.  Hostility and fear directed towards the lower social class of immigrants by the upper and middle class found its convenient excuse in targeting opium dens.

Yet doctor-prescribed opium tinctures were still widely utilized.  It wasn’t until 1906 when the first legislation was passed that began to put the brakes on opium as a cure-all.  Britian first, then Canada (in 1908) specified limitation of narcotic content in medicines.  By 1914, theU.S. restricted the manufacture and distribution of opiates with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act and by 1970, it was reclassified as a Schedule II substance under the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal to posses or use without a doctor’s prescription.