A member of the Papaveracea family, the poppy is an erect annual with pink or purple flowers and waxy leaves. The plant grows to about 5 feet in height and produces seeds that are tiny, kidney-shaped, and slate blue. It takes 900,000 of them to reach the scale’s one-pound mark! The genus name Papaver is Latin for poppy plant. Somiferum, the species name of the poppy, is derived from the Latin somnus (sleep) and ferrus (to bring), a reference to the sleep-bearing properties of the plant. (That was a field of poppies that caused Dorothy to slumber in The Wizard of Oz.)
Poppy plants have been cultivated for over 3,000 years. The ancients used poppy seed oil and made honey cakes (similar to baklava) with the seeds. Much like bakers today, the Romans also used the little blue seeds to decorate breads. Ancient Egyptians used poppy seeds as a condiment, while the ancient Greeks harvested the seeds to use in cakes and to serve Olympic athletes who needed some added vigor. The poppy seeds you use in your kitchen come from the same plant as opium. While the seeds won’t have a narcotic effect (they have a low alkaloid content; the drug is prepared from the high-alkaloid unripe plant capsules), it is true that eating enough of them could cause you to fail a drug test.
In the near East and Orient, the poppy has long been grown for its narcotic properties. In the 19th century, the plant was the focus of the Opium Wars, and throughout the century it was used as a cure-all tincture.