We are used to seeing large-flowered red poppies growing densely in fields. They sometimes grow in such profusion that fields resemble a red carpet.
The opium poppy, on the other hand, grows singly but its large beautiful flowers stand out and are easily noticed even by those who do not normally bother to look at wild flowers. It is an indigenous species and grows throughout the Mediterranean region, especially in southwestern Europe and in North Africa.
In Maltese, the plant is known as xaħxieħ.
Cultivated varieties of this species are the source of opium from which many narcotics, including morphine, codeine and noscapine, are produced. Morphine is also used to produce heroin.
The opium poppy has been used since prehistoric times. The ancient Greeks called the sap obtained from the flower ‘opion’ from which the current word opium is derived.
The scientific name of this poppy is Papaver somniferum. Papaver is the name of the poppy family and somniferum means sleep inducing.
Poppy seeds, an ingredient in many types of curries, are obtained from the opium poppy. The seeds are also used to produce an edible oil which is sometimes used as a salad dressing.
Some botanists are of the opinion that the opium poppy that grows in the Mediterranean region is not the same species as the cultivated species. This is based on the fact that they have different numbers of chromosomes. Botanists sometimes refer to the Mediterranean species as the poppy of Troy or the dwarf breadseed poppy.
Several other species of poppy can be found in the Maltese countryside. The most common species, the field poppy, is now in flower.
It is known in Maltese as pepprin. In a few weeks’ time, another species, the yellow-horned poppy known in Maltese as pepprin isfar, will appear.
This article was published in The Times on 25 April 2013.