It is a beautiful, hardy flower – Papaver somniferum – a poppy that grows up to four feet in height and arrives in a multitude of colors.
It thrives in temperate climates – needs no fertilizer – attracts few pests and is as tough as many weeds.
The blooms last only a few days and then the petals fall – revealing a matte greenish-gray pod fringed with flutes.
The seeds are nutritious and have no psychotropic effects.
No one knows when the first curious human learned to crush this bulblike pod and mix it with water – creating a substance that has an oddly calming and euphoric effect on the human brain.
Nor do we know who first found out that if you cut the pod with a small knife – capture its milky sap – and leave that to harden in the air – you’ll get a smokable nugget that provides an even more intense experience.
We do know from Neolithic ruins in Europe that the cultivation of this plant goes back as far as 6,000 years – probably farther.
Homer called it a ‘wondrous substance’.
Those who consumed it he marveled ‘did not shed a tear all day long – even if their mother or father had died – even if a brother or beloved son was killed before their own eyes’.
For millennia it has salved pain – suspended grief and seduced humans with its intimations of the divine.
It was a medicine before there was such a thing as medicine.
Every attempt to banish it – destroy it or prohibit it has failed.
The poppy’s power in fact is greater than ever.
The molecules derived from it have effectively conquered contemporary America.
Opium – heroin – morphine and a universe of synthetic opioids – including the superpowerful painkiller fentanyl – are its proliferating offspring.
More than 2 million Americans are now hooked on some kind of opioid and drug overdoses — from heroin and fentanyl in particular — claimed more American lives last year than were lost in the entire Vietnam War.
Overdose deaths are higher than in the peak year of AIDS and far higher than fatalities from car crashes.