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Also See: Opium Poppies : Opium: Cultivation and Morphine... : Harvested Poppies


Opium Poppy


By Nan (Nanook) on Tuesday, October 23, 2001 - 07:17 pm: The Nook

I noticed a lot of you guys had question about poppy cultivation. I have a friend who studies horticulture and he gave me a compilation of material taken from various issues of the United Nations Bulletin on Narcotics. I thought it was pretty good and maybe some of you might find it interesting. In no way am I encouraging you to propagate poppies where they are illegal. This information is presented only for it's botanical and scientific value. Papaver Somniferum The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is an annual plant. From a very small round seed, it grows, flowers, and bears fruit (seed pods) only once. The entire growth cycle for most varieties of this plant takes about 120 days. The seeds of P. somniferum can be distinguished from other species by the appearance of a fine secondary fishnet reticulation within the spaces of the coarse reticulation found all over their surface. When compared with other Papaver species, P. somniferum plants will have their leaves arranged along the stem of the plant, rather than basal leaves, and the leaves and stem will be 'glabrous' (hairless). Opium is the name for the latex produced within the seed pods of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. Cultivation Prior to and during sowing apply a high phosphorus 'P' soil amendment, the use of superphosphate or other phosphate fertilizers has an extremely favorable effect on opium yield. Experience has shown that the addition of superphosphate when sowing increases the crop of opium by 15-20%. Small amounts of additional potash 'K' are okay to add at this point. However, high nitrogen 'N' levels need be avoided until the later stages of development, otherwise yield and alkaloid content will suffer. The plant can tolerate a wide range of pH although 6.75 - 7.5 is said to be ideal. Avoid adjusting the pH with 'dolomite' since elevated magnesium 'Mg' will adversely effect alkaloid content. In open soil, winter frosts are harmful to autumn-sown poppies, and this means that the crop must be sown in spring. However autumn sowings invariably give opium with a higher morphine content. The conclusion is that wherever the danger of the crop's freezing is small, because of the presence of snow cover or of the absence of low temperatures as a rule during the winter, it is always better to sow during the autumn. Once poppies have survived the winter, they are unharmed by late spring frosts. Given successful wintering, autumn sowing always ensures a very high opium yield, in comparison with spring sowing. If, however, spring sowing is practiced, the earlier it is done, the better the harvest. Seeds should be sown to a depth of 1- 2cm. The poppy requires a temperature of at least 3 to 4°C in order to germinate; the optimum temperature for germination is 10 to 11°C and the germination time will take from 14 to 21 days. The young plants prefer a temperature of 4 to 7°C. The young seedlings can not tolerate harsh rain or severe frost therefore, it may prove beneficial to lightly cover the area with straw or hay as a protective measure. In less than six weeks the young plant will grow four large leaves and resembles a small cabbage in appearance. The lobed, dentate leaves are glaucous green with a dull gray or blue tint. After the first four leaves have developed the plants should be thinned to 20 x 20cm apart or approximately 15 plants per sq. meter. Provide supplemental nitrogen during the growth, rosette & budding stages. In general apply 2-3wks after thinning re-apply in 3-4wks then after another 3wks a double strength dose should be applied for the final application. The level of potassium is insignificant and elevated levels will result in decreased alkaloid content. Furthermore, additional phosphorus feeding should be avoided. Despite the potential beneficial effect on vegetative growth and bud size, it decreases the overall alkaloid content. A large quantity of water is also particularly necessary from the first stages of the plant's growth until flowering begins. Water as needed (when the soil moisture content falls below 65-70 % saturation) for the first 17wks but not thereafter unless extremely arid conditions exist. After flowering is over, a dry soil is required for the cultivation of the poppy for opium. Under these circumstances, high-quality crude opium is obtained, with a high morphine content. Within sixty days, the plant will grow from one to two feet in height, with one primary, long, smooth stem. The upper portion of this stem is without leaves and is the 'peduncle'. One or more secondary stems, called 'tillers', may grow from the main stem of the plant. As the plant grows tall, the main stem and each tiller terminates in a flower bud. During the development of the bud, the peduncle portion of the stem elongates and forms a distinctive 'hook' which causes the bud to be turned upside down. As the flower develops, the peduncle straightens and the buds point upward. A day or two after the buds first point upward, the two outer segments of the bud, called 'sepals,' fall away, exposing the flower petals. Fewer large capsules are easier to manage and give better yields than multiple small ones. Therefore, the plants should be pruned of excess tillers leaving only 3 to 4 capsules per plant to mature. Poppies generally flower after about ninety days of growth and continue to flower for two to three weeks. The exposed flower blossom is at first crushed and crinkled, but the petals soon expand and become smooth in the sun. Poppy flowers have four petals. The petals may be single or double and may be white, pink, reddish purple, crimson red, or variegated. The petals last for two to four days and then drop to reveal a small, round, green fruit which continues to develop. These fruits or pods also called 'capsules' are either oblate, elongated, or globular and mature to about the size of a chicken egg. Harvesting The latex is harvested after the capsules have flowered and the petals have dropped from the plant. The exact time of harvest varies from 14-25 days depending on the sub-species of poppy and geographical growing region. In general the capsules are observed for physical changes to determine ripeness. Ripening capsules usually swell, darken in color, develop a colored ring at the base of the pod and are covered with light chaff. Capsules are incised only once to yield opium high in morphine content or multiple times for a larger quantity of opium with a lower morphine content. Harvesting details from several different geographical locations: Harvesting raw opium in Southeast Asia: Traditionally, most highland and upland farmers in Southeast Asia begin scoring of the pods about two weeks after the flower petals fall from the pods. The farmer examines the pod and the tiny crown portion on the top of the pod very carefully before scoring. The grayish-green pod will become a dark green color as it matures and it will swell in size. If the points of the pod's crown are standing straight out or are curved upward, the pod is ready to be scored. If the crown's points turn downward, the pod is not yet fully matured. Not all the plants will be ready for scoring at the same time and each pod can be tapped more than once. A set of three or four small blades of iron, glass, or glass splinters bound tightly together on a wooden handle is used to score two or three sides of the pod in a vertical direction. If the blades cut too deep into the wall of the pod, the latex will flow too quickly and will drip to the ground. If the incisions are too shallow, the flow will be too slow and the latex will harden in the pods. A depth of about one millimeter is desired for the incision. Using a blade-tool designed to cut to that depth, scoring ideally starts in late afternoon so the white raw opium latex can ooze out and slowly coagulate on the surface of the pod overnight. If the scoring begins too early in the afternoon, the sun will cause the opium to coagulate over the incision and block the flow. Raw opium oxidizes, darkens and thickens in the cool night air. Early the next morning, the opium gum is scraped from the surface of the pods with a short-handled, flat, iron blade three to four inches wide. The opium yield from a single pod varies greatly, ranging from 10 to 100 milligrams of opium per pod. The average yield per pod is about 80 milligrams. Harvesting raw opium in Bulgaria: In Bulgaria, the poppy capsules are incised only once, usually with a single-bladed knife, but in most other opium-producing countries the capsules are incised repeatedly, often four or five times on different days, until they will yield no more latex. It is worthy to note that the quantity of latex falls off rapidly with later incisions, and so does the morphine content. The collection of the opium is done in Bulgaria by incising the poppy-heads during the period of what is known as industrial maturity. The poppy capsules themselves undergo visible changes during the days around June 26, and these changes make it possible to determine the most favorable moment for making the incision. The poppy capsules acquire a gray color with a bronze luster, and the "sides" of the capsule become stronger, showing a very characteristic whitish-coffee-colored ring under the capsule itself. This occurs about twenty-five days after the flowering of the greater part of the plant is over, at the beginning of June in the plains of Southern Bulgaria, and at the end of that month in the more northern and higher parts of the country. When the plant reaches industrial maturity, the poppy capsules gradually change their greenish color for one with steely-blue tints, and become covered with a light down. With light pressure the inner sides can be felt, while in the uppermost part of the spathe under the pericarp itself, a light coffee-colored ring appears. On incision of the pericarp, when only the epidermis and the milky ducts are touched, droplets of milky juice separate out on the surface of the walls. The incision is almost invariably made with a special sharp-edged knife, which penetrates 1 to 2 mm deep. About three-quarters of the capsule is incised horizontally, and the operation stops a little below the broadest part of the capsule. In calm weather, the droplets of milky juice form a string of beads like a pearl necklace. Strong winds, and especially rains, prevent normal collection of the opium. The incision is usually begun after midday, and finished before sunset. Early on the following day, immediately after the dew has evaporated, a milky juice exuding from above the capsule has already collected, dried, and from being white (occasionally pink) has become coffee-colored and hard. Making the incision during the period of industrial maturity ensures the maximum opium yield and the minimum reduction in seed yield, as compared with later incision. Making the incision either before or after industrial maturity leads to a noticeable reduction in the opium yield. Premature incision causes a 25% reduction in opium yield, while if the incision is made after industrial maturity, the yield is reduced by 12.5% if four days have elapsed, and by 50% if eight days have elapsed. A certain increase in the quantity of opium is observed when the incision of the poppy is made during the hottest hours of the day (the optimum quantity is obtained at 2 p.m.), and a certain diminution when it is made during the earlier and later hours of the day. The quantity is lowest when the incision is made early in the day. The time of day at which the incision is made also affects the percentage of morphine content in the opium. During the early hours of the day (8 a.m. to 10 a.m.), the opium obtained has a low percentage content in morphine, while the quantity increases during the hotter hours (noon to 4 p.m.). Harvesting raw opium in the USSR: The gathering of opium begins during the technical ripeness period of the capsules, which sets in 16-18 days after mass flowering (July-August). Technically-ripe capsules are elastic to the touch and have a light gray-blue waxy coating. During this period the seed is in the stage of milky ripeness. Incisions are made first in the capsules on the main stem and later in those on lateral stems. In the USSR unlike India the capsules are incised horizontally, ensuring abundant exudation of milky latex. On an average three incisions are made in every technically-ripe capsule at intervals of one or two days. Capsules are incised by day, from 12 - 1 till 5 - 6 p.m., and the milky latex which drips out of them, already in the form of congealed opium, is removed from them with scrapers on the morning of the following day from 5 to 10 a.m. Two days' delay in starting to incise technically-ripe capsules results in a loss of 7 %, and six days' delay of 30 %, of the latex. In cloudy, rainy weather the capsules are incised and the opium is collected on the same day, with an interval of 4-5 hours. The first incision is made towards the top of the capsules on the south side; the second (somewhat lower) on the north side; and the third (still lower) again on the south side. The capsules are incised with a special three-bladed knife with limited depth of cut (figure 1). The distance between the blades of the knife should not exceed 3-4 mm. Experiments have shown that a large number of blades on the knife does not increase the exudation of milky latex or the amount of opium collected. FIGURE 1Position of hands & Position of incisions for incising capsule on capsule When removing the raw opium from the capsules, the collectors take care not to scrape epidermis off them as well, since that would lower the opium's commercial quality. Experience has shown that with three incisions practically the whole possible yield of opium is collected, and that to expend much labor on a fourth incision, let alone a fifth, is uneconomic. Harvesting raw opium in Turkey: 1.The right time. Opium is collected by cutting slashes on the poppy capsules before the seeds are ripe. The latex comes out in little drops. After it coagulates this latex constitutes raw opium. The incision period varies according to climatic conditions. Normally it occurs towards the second half of June or the first fortnight of July. In extreme conditions incision may begin as early as May (in the valleys of Aydin) or it may be deferred until the beginning of August in higher areas. A rainy, cool summer prolongs the period of growth, whereas a warm, dry summer curtails it. The right times for incising winter- and spring-grown poppies are only about a week apart. The best time for collecting opium is about a fortnight after the petals have fallen. The upper part of the stalk then begins to darken, the capsules grow hard, and the lower leaves begin to turn yellow. The capsules change in color from a light to a brownish green and become covered with a kind of film of moisture. In the case of some varieties of poppy, however, such as those grown in the Isparta area, the capsules do not change color but remain light green and are not covered with a film of moisture, so that it is difficult in that region to determine the right time for making the incision. Capsules that are still soft are not ripe. The duration of the right time for harvesting depends on the climate. In hot, dry years it is from four to seven days, and in normal years from seven to ten days. After that the capsules begin to get soft again. They lose their bloom, turn yellow and finally dry up. 2. The latex. When properly incised the stalks and leaves also provide latex, but incision of the capsule draws the juice upwards. The latex is between the epicarp and the mesocarp. The juice channels go from below, upwards. In order to gather as much juice as possible a great many channels must be cut. If incisions are made too deeply, however, the wall of the capsule will be cut right through and some of the juice will run down inside and be lost. The latex accumulated on the outside of the capsules is white and liquid, but the moisture begins to evaporate immediately and the latex becomes more and more solid and its color more and more brown. On warm, humid, calm nights, the latex emits such a strong odor that it is quite impossible to remain near a poppy field without contracting a headache or dizziness. The peasants who live near the fields often have to remain confined in their houses, even when it is excessively hot. 3. Incision. The incision of the poppy capsule is a very delicate and expert operation. Incisions which are too deep or too shallow or which are made too early or too late give bad results. The cut must be a shallow one but it must also be deep enough to allow the drops of latex to flow down outside. Incisions made in the middle of the day when the sun is shining give bad results and there will be hardly any flow of juice. It is therefore preferable to make the incisions either in the morning or in the evening. When the incision is made in the morning, the opium is gathered in the evening. In such cases the opium is clear-colored and its qualities are regarded as superior by drug addicts who attach great importance to clear-colored opium. On the other hand, incisions made in the morning give a smaller yield. It is, therefore, now considered preferable in Turkey to make incisions in the evening, since color is of little importance in the case of opium intended for medical purposes. In such cases the opium is gathered the following morning. For this purpose, it is necessary to wait until the morning dew has disappeared. If the capsules are incised in the evening, the yield will be more abundant. The latex takes from eight to fourteen hours, according to atmospheric conditions, before it solidifies and is ready for collection. In case prolonged bad weather makes it impossible to observe these conditions, the grower will take advantage of a fine interval to incise the capsules and gather the latex in its liquid form. The incisions are usually made with knives of various shapes, but there are also special instruments which are now increasingly employed. The best known of them is the so-called "Amasya" type. It has a broad end terminating in four to six lancet points, which have the advantage of not penetrating deeply and not piercing the capsule. The cuts made in the middle of the capsule produce most latex. In a pamphlet published and distributed free by the Turkish Soil Products Office, the following advice is given to growers with regard to the incision: 1. The capsule must never be cut all round. Spaces should be left unslashed between the extremities of the cuts in order that the capsule may continue to grow and the seeds ripen normally; 2. In order to obtain more latex, it is advisable to make several incisions (each covering a third or quarter of the capsule) at intervals of one day; 3. Incisions made on clear, sunny, calm days give the best results. In warm districts it is preferable to make the incision in the evening, and in cool districts in the morning. It should be borne in mind that rain washes away the juice and that wind makes it fall to the ground; 4. Care must be taken to incise only the ripe capsules. This is why the farmer must go to the fields every day to select them. Harvesting raw opium in Yugoslavia: The incisions are made before the capsules are quite ripe, ten to fifteen days after the flowers fall off, at the end of May or the beginning of June. The best time for making the incisions is determined by the color and hardness of the capsules and by the appearance of a blue-brown ring at the bottom of the capsule. The period during which the capsules can be incised and the latex successfully collected does not exceed four to six days. If the right moment is missed, the capsules take on a yellowish shade and give less latex, finally yielding nothing at all. Cutting is usually done between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., with a horizontal incision which covers about three-quarters of the capsule. A quarter of the capsule is always left uncut, to allow a further circulation of nutritious substances at the top of the capsule. Small drops of white, milky juice then begin to flow from the incision, and exposed to the air solidify and grow darker. The incision must be neither too shallow nor too deep. If it is too shallow, the number of latex vessels affected may be too small and too little juice will drip out; if the incision is too deep, so that the capsule is entirely cut through, the latex will flow into the capsule and the whole yield will be lost. The incisions are made with special knives or with special tools, consisting of wooden handles fitted with sharp pieces of iron (often razor blades). The size of the blade automatically regulates the depth of the incision. Tools with two or more blades are also used, to allow two or three cuts with a single motion. As soon as the incision is made, the latex begins to drip. In order to avoid brushing against the capsules, the harvesters making incisions must walk backwards. Unlike the procedure in certain Far Eastern countries the incisions are never repeated. It has been proved that two, three or more incisions yield more opium, but each subsequent incision produces opium with a lower morphine content. In countries which used to supply the opium smoking market, manifold incisions of the capsules were profitable, since more opium could thus be obtained. This opium is at the same time more suitable for smoking because of its lower morphine content. Yugoslav opium has an unpleasant taste and a high morphine content and has therefore never been in demand on the smokers' market nor exported for this purpose. It is intended only for the Western market, where morphine content is in demand. Accordingly, manifold incision of capsules is not profitable. The fact that the capsules are cut only once accounts for the considerably greater output of opium per hectare in Far Eastern countries than in Yugoslavia.

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