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


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