Monday, May 26, 2014

In Praise of Laudanum

Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)
"'...What I could really use... do you by chance have any sort of opiate?' I sank to my knees beside her to pore over the contents of the box. 'Oh, yes!' Her hand went unerringly to a small green flask. 'Flowers of laudanum,' she read from the label. 'Will that do?' 'Perfect.' I accepted the flask gratefully."  
-- from OUTLANDER,  by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 36
Claire wanted the laudanum to sedate Jamie while she treated his badly damaged hand. In the event, he insisted on substituting whiskey for the drug, coping with the pain by biting down on a stout leather strap.

Laudanum was the invention of the 16th century Swiss-German alchemist Paracelsus. He experimented with various opium concoctions and discovered that opium alkaloids are more soluble in alcohol than in water.  He came up with a tincture of opium and alcohol that made a very effective pain reliever. He gave this medicine the name "laudanum" from the Latin verb laudare which means "to praise." When you consider that laudanum was perhaps the most useful preparation available at the time for the relief from pain, cough, diarrhea and a host of other ailments, the name certainly fits. Here's a quote from Wikipedia:
"By the 18th century, the medicinal properties of opium and laudanum were well known. Several physicians, including John Jones, John Brown, and George Young, the latter of whom published a comprehensive medical text entitled Treatise on Opium extolled the virtues of laudanum and recommended the drug for practically every ailment.[2] "Opium, and after 1820, morphine, was mixed with everything imaginable: mercury, hashish, cayenne pepper, ether, chloroform, belladonna, whiskey, wine and brandy."[5]

Botanical Information

Family: Papaveraceae
Genus: Papaver
Species: Papaver somniferum
Common name: Opium poppy; the translation of the Latin name is Papaver = poppy, somniferum = sleep-making; it was called the "joy plant" by the ancient Sumerians.

It is believed that opium poppies are native to southeastern Europe and western Asia. They have been in cultivation and use since prehistoric times.

Opium poppies are annuals, grown from seed. They occasionally over-winter in mild climates. The flowers are beautiful, showy, and come in an array of colors including: red, white, pink, purple and lavender - many with black or purple centers.

But the real value of these plants lies in the latex, a white, milky substance found just beneath the skin of the seed capsule. This sticky latex contains the alkaloids we refer to as opiates: morphine, codeine, thebaine, papaverine, and noscapine, with morphine being predominant.

Laudanum - A Blessing and A Curse

Laudanum was pretty much unheard of until the mid-1600s. Then Thomas Sydenham, a physician known as the "English Hippocrates," put his own twist on Paracelcus' recipe for laudanum and began advocating its use in the treatment of a wide range of ailments. Here is his recipe, published in the "Paris Codex" in the 1890s:
Opium, 2 ounces; saffron, 1 ounce; bruised cinnamon and bruised cloves, each 1 drachm; sherry wine, 1 pint. Mix and macerate for 15 days and filter. Twenty drops are equal to one grain of opium.
In the 18th century, laudanum was readily available in western Europe. Although it was the "wonder drug" of its time, prescribed for everything from yellow fever to heart problems, it did not cure disease. It relieved symptoms, such as pain, sleeplessness, diarrhea and coughs. Still, one cannot underestimate the value of this drug. From Wikipedia:
"To understand the popularity of a medicine that eased -- even if only temporarily -- coughing, diarrhoea and pain, one only has to consider the living conditions at the time". In the 1850s, "cholera and dysentery regularly ripped through communities, its victims often dying from debilitating diarrhoea"
Laudanum was also a cheap high. Because it was classified as a medicine, it wasn't taxed like alcoholic beverages, making laudanum more affordable for the working class.  

The down side, of course, is this: opiates are highly addictive. While users may feel euphoric when they first start taking the drug, over the long run, opiates cause depression. Accidental overdoses and suicides were not uncommon among those addicted to laudanum. Other side effects include: constipation, respiratory failure, and because of the high alcohol content, liver damage. 

By the early 20th century, countries around the world began to regulate the production and use of laudanum. It is still available in the US by prescription, but is not in popular use. Isolated opiates, such as morphine and codeine, are easier to dose accurately and less expensive to produce than laudanum.  

Famous laudanum users include:
• Queen Victoria, who used laudanum and marijuana to relieve menstrual cramps.
• Benjamin Franklin used laudanum to relieve the pain of kidney stones, becoming an addict in the process.
• Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of US President Abraham Lincoln, was also addicted to laudanum.
• Thomas De Quincey won fame with his book "Confessions of an English Opium Eater," telling of his addiction to laudanum and alcohol. (And "outing" a number of his contemporaries in the process.)
• Literary greats said to abuse laudanum were Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
• Hector Berloiz wrote the "Symphonie Fantastique" under the influence of laudanum.

Cultivation and Harvesting

Poppies are easy to grow from seed. The hard part is determining whether it is legal to plant them. US law is ambiguous, at best. Michael Pollan's article, "Opium Made Easy," which describes his own experiences and observations, quotes law enforcement officials who say it is legal to grow the flowers as long as you don't intend to manufacture opium, and others who say it is illegal, no matter what.

All that said, poppies are grown for ornamental and culinary purposes all across the US. I see lots of them growing here in Seattle, some planted on purpose and many that pop up in the garden as volunteers. The tiny black seeds, familiar to anyone who has seen a poppyseed bagel or muffin, are easily carried on the wind from yard, to rockery to mixed border. I'm not sure that everyone who has them in their garden realizes what they are. I'm sure most know that the flowers are poppies, just not that they are opium poppies.

When it comes to harvesting, however, the law is very clear. It is illegal to make your own opium in the US.

And yet, inquiring minds want to know: how is it done? This video, shot in Afghanistan, explains the process.

For More Information About Laudanum and Opium

Here are some of the sources I used for research to write this post.

Laudanum: The Heroin of the 19th Century

Opium Made Easy, an article by Michael Pollan in Harper's Magazine

Outlandish Observations

PBS Frontline: Transforming Opium Poppies into Heroin

Wikipedia - Laudanum

Wikipedia - Opium Poppy

Wikipedia - Papaver somniferum

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Pocket Jamie's Spring Garden Tour

If you are an OUTLANDER fan, you are undoubtedly familiar with "Pocket Jamie," the 8" photo of James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser as played by Sam Heughan. Inspired by fans around the world, who take photos of Pocket Jamie wherever they are, I decided to take my Jamie out to explore the garden.

Right away, Jamie started searching Rhododendron Hell, looking for wee Roger.

Then to get away from the "stink" of lavender (Lavandula sp.), Black Jack Randall's signature scent, Jamie jumped into the foliage of David's viburnum (Viburnum davidii).

Even though we were in Seattle, Jamie felt right at home marching across the heath (Erica sp.).

And a clump of bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) reminded him of being home in Scotland.

Finally, Jamie paused in a cloud of Forget-me nots (Myosotis sylvatica), no doubt thinking of his beloved Claire and her trip through the stones.

(If you would like to download and print your own Pocket Jamie, here's the link.)

Monday, May 5, 2014

Potatoes: A Story of Feast, Famine - and Poison

"'Plant potatoes,' I said. 
Jenny's mouth dropped slightly open, then she firmed her jaw and nodded briskly. 
'Potatoes. Aye. There's none closer than Edinburgh, but I'll send for them. How many?' 
'As many as you can. They're not planted in the Highlands now, but they will be. They're a root crop that will keep for a long time, and the yield is better than wheat. Put as much in the ground as you can into crops that can be stored. There's going to be a famine, a bad one, in two years.'" 
-- From OUTLANDER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 33  
As a time-traveler, Claire knew what a calamity The Rising would be. She advised Jenny to plant potatoes so the residents of Lallybroch would have a better chance of surviving the coming disaster. 

According to the SUNSET WESTERN GARDEN BOOK, "two pounds of seed potatoes can yield up to 50 pounds of potatoes for eating." That is a remarkable return on investment! Add to that the fact that potatoes are nutritious, especially compared with what was available at the time, and they were nothing short of a wonder crop for Highlanders.

However, it took a bit of convincing to get farmers to plant them. When explorers brought potatoes to Europe from South America in the early 1700s, farmers recognized them as members of the deadly nightshade family and wanted no part of them. But those that did try growing potatoes were soon rewarded with abundant yields. And when it appeared that no one died from eating one, more farmers started planting them. Potatoes quickly became a staple crop throughout Europe. According to Wikipedia, "the introduction of the potato was responsible for a quarter of the growth in Old World population and urbanization between 1700 and 1900."

While potatoes may have prevented complete disaster for the residents of Lallybroch in the 1740s and 50s, they were the cause of a disaster in the Highlands in the 1840s. The Highland Potato Famine of 1846 brought widespread malnutrition, disease and financial loss. It is estimated that 1.7 million people left Scotland between 1846 and 1852 because of the famine, many forcibly moved to Canada and Australia. 

Botanical Information
Family: Solonaceae
Genus: Solanum
Species: Solanum tuberosum

Potatoes are native to South America. Today's many varieties can be traced back to origins in the Andes Mountains of southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia. It is believed that potatoes have been in cultivation for 7,000 - 10,000 years. Potatoes are members of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, tobacco, deadly nightshade many other plants.

Potatoes are susceptible to blight caused by a fungus-like organism called Phytophthora infestans. As potatoes have become a staple crop worldwide, considerable effort has been made to come up with varieties that are disease resistant. To date, there isn't a perfectly resistant cultivar, but there several that perform well. It is estimated that there are 5,000 varieties of potatoes in cultivation.

Nutritional Value

Potatoes are good sources of Vitamin C and B vitamins, particularly B6. They also contain small amounts of protein, folate and Vitamin K. Most of the calories in a potato come from starch. Potatoes also contain some insoluble fiber which aids digestion.


Green skin on potatoes is caused by a concentration of chlorophyll which indicates the presence of a chemical called solanine. Solanine is a neurotoxin and if ingested in large amounts it can cause diarrhea, vomiting, headaches and even paralysis. Of course, you would have to eat a heck of a lot of potatoes, about 4-1/2 pounds, in order to get enough solanine into your system to feel the ill effects. So while it's best not to eat green potato skins, don't panic if you realize you've eaten a potato chip with a bit of green on it. Do not eat raw green shoots on potatoes or any part of the potato vine, as these are poisonous also. One of the few cases of toxicity reported in the US in the past 50 years involved someone drinking tea made with the leaves of a potato plant. Dinna do that!

Agricultural practices are another source of toxicity when it comes to potatoes. The Environmental Working Group lists potatoes on its "Dirty Dozen" list of vegetables and fruits that have the highest levels of pesticide residues. The fungicides and herbicides used in mass production of potatoes are absorbed into the flesh of the tubers - you can't wash them off. So your best bet is to buy organically grown potatoes or, as you'll see in the video below, grow your own.


This video gives you easy to follow instructions on how to grow your own potatoes without the use of toxic chemicals. So why not give them a try? Plant some potatoes and think of Jenny and Lallybroch.