California Poppy


Botanical Name: Eschscholzia californica, Papaveraceae

Common names: California Poppy

Similar species: Eschscholzia spp., Meconopsis spp., Papaver spp., and Argemone spp., as well as other species in the Papaveraceae that contain similar constituents and effects.

Plant description: California Poppy is an annual or short-lived perennial, 5-60 cm in height, erect or spreading, with a succulent taproot in perennial specimens. The leaves are basal, lime-green succulent leaves, divided many times so as to have a lacy appearance. The flowers arise from leafless stems, first blooming in spring and then periodically throughout the growing season, and are either solitary or arise as a successive growth from axillary shoots, forming yellow to orange, bowl-shaped, four-petaled flowers, each petal 2-6 cm long. Some individuals may display white, cream, pink, or red flowers. The flowers give way to long horned seed capsules, 3-9 cm long with a round ring around the base, containing many small seeds, brown to black in colour, 1.5-1.8 mm in diameter. Two subspecies are recognized for E. californica: ssp. californica of California, Baja California, west central Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, and ssp. mexicana of extreme eastern California, southern Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Sonora, Chihuahua, New Mexico, and Texas (Clark 2002). Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum and related Papaver spp.) is an erect, herbaceous annual or bi-annual herb, attaining a height of between 50 and 150 cm tall. The herb is glabrous or glaucous, sometimes with a few spreading bristles. The stems are slightly branched with many large erect leaves, ovate to oblong, serrate to dentate-serrate, clasping at base, glaucous, the lower ones pinnatifid. The flowers are on long peduncles with nodding buds that expand into erect flowers, the petals 4-8 cm long, ranging from white to purplish, but with varieties that are pink, violet, bluish, or red. The fruit is a capsule, ovoid to globose, glabrous, 4-6 cm long, 3.5-4 cm in diameter, with 8-12 rayed sessile stigmas, the seeds within oily, whitish, dark gray, bluish to black. Meconopsis baileyii and related spp. is the Himalayan Blue Poppy, while Argemone is the Prickly Poppy.

Habitat, ecology and distribution: California Poppy is found in open and grassy areas, in lower altitudes, extending from the Columbia River valley in Washington state southwards into the Baja peninsula of California, westward to the Pacific ocean, and in the south, eastward into New Mexico and Texas. In its southern range California Poppy can interbreed with E. mexicana.Papaver somniferum in native to Western Asia; Meconopsis to the Tibetan plateau (excluding Meconopsis cambrica, the ‘Welsh Poppy’); many Argemone species are found throughout North America, some of which are endangered (e.g. A. pleiacanth).

Part used: immature seed capsules, aerial portions, whole plant.

History: California Poppy was first described by Adelbert von Chamisso (c. 1820), a naturalist on board the Russian ship the Rurik, who named the genus in honor of Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz, the expedition’s physician and Chamisso’s close friend (Clark 2000). California Poppy is the state flower of California. The medicinal virtues of the Papaveraceae have long been known to herbalists all over the world, used in Chinese, Ayurvedic, Unani and First Nations medicine. Although originally native to West Asia, the usage of Opium Poppy in the West became popularized by Roman physicians, and later by the Arabs. Although the manufacture of opium, in which the milky exudate is collected from the immature poppy seed capsule and purified, has been known to humans for a long time, its relatively recent widespread usage as a recreational substance is largely due to the British, who at their height were the largest manufacturer and exporter of opium in the world. In the mid 1700’s much of the world’s opium was manufactured exclusively on the ubcontinent of India, exported in large amounts by the British into China in exchange for Chinese goods and tea. The result of this was the creation of a huge underclass of addicts in China, while in England the non-medical use of opium was in the process of becoming banned. This state of affairs pretty much continued into the mid 1800’s, when the Chinese reformer Lin Tse-hsü angered the British by outlawing the opium trade in China. The result of this of course led to the infamous ‘Opium wars.’ Opium was at one time widely prescribed by the medical profession, originally as a treatment for ‘irritable conditions’ and of course in pain, but soon began to be prescribed and marketed for almost any kind of health disorder, leading it to be harshly criticized by the Thomsonian and Physiomedicalist reformers. Opium Poppy was the source of the very first alkaloid ever to be extracted, morphine, named after the Greek God of dreaming (Morpheus), by the German chemist Sertürner in 1811. By the mid 1800’s morphine began to replace the usage of opium, and was widely used during the US Civil War as an anodyne. This created numerous morphine addicts in former soldiers, which became a matter of grave public concern. The solution to this problem was the introduction of ‘heroin,’ produced and marketed by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, as a treatment for morphine addiction. In 1898 the Bayer company later marketed a heroin-spiked cough syrup that was given to children, since replaced by codeine-based syrups. Despite the US federal regulation of opiates in the 1920’s, a large market of users had already been created, a legacy that remains constant today.

Constituents: Like the Opium Poppy, California Poppy contains a variety of isoquinoline alkaloids including very small amounts of morphine and codeine. While these famous alkaloids may contribute to the activity of Eschscholzia, the medicinal properties are likely due to the rather large variety of other isoquinolines, including californidine, californine, chelerythrine, chelilutine, chelirubine, coptisine,cryptocavine,cryptopine,escholidine, escholine, scholinine, eschscholtzidine, protopine and sanguinarine. California Poppy is also noted for its rutin content and as well as other flavone glycosides quercetin and isorhamnetin (Beck and Haberlein 1999; Moore 1993; Duke 1992).

Medical Research: Although the pharmacology of morphine and codeine are well established as agonists to endogenous opioid receptors in the human brain, their activity cannot be equated with effects of the crude extract of any Poppy. As exemplified by California Poppy, all poppies contain a variety of alkaloids that all likely have different activities, as well as other constituents that we know from experience can modulate the effects of the ‘active’ constituents. Many herbalists have observed that crude herb extracts of the various poppy species are ess addictive and less potent in their activities than the purified alkaloids, with fewer side-effects. Unlike opioids or even the stronger acting Poppy species, Rudolf Weiss states that the effect of California Poppy is towards “…establishing equilibrium,” and is not at all narcotic (1988, 289). In experimental studies, an aqueous extract of Eschscholzia californica was shown to demonstrate sedative and anxiolytic properties in mice challenged with a variety of behavioural tests. Doses of more than 25 mg/kg demonstrated anxiolytic effects, whereas higher dosages of up to 200 mg/kg promoted sedation. The extract was found to be nontoxic with intraperitoneal injection (Rolland et al 1991). Kleber et al demonstrated that an aqueous-alcoholic extract of Eschscholzia californica inhibits the enzymatic degradation of catecholamines, including dopamine beta-hydroxylase and monoamine oxidase (MAO-B), as well as the synthesis of adrenaline (1995). In a more recent study an aqueous alcohol extract of Eschscholzia californica was found to possess sedative and anxiolytic effect in mice. Researchers determined an affinity for the benzodiazepine receptor, demonstrated by concurrent administration of flumazenil, a benzodiazepine antagonist, which suppressed the sedative and anxiolytic effects of the extract (Rolland et al 2001).

Toxicity: There have been no indications of toxicity for Eschscholzia californica in experimental studies or in anecdotal reports.

Herbal action: sedative,anodyne, anxiolytic, antidepressant

Indications: anxiety, nervousness, restless, agitation, insomnia, pain

Contraindications and cautions: fever, pregnancy; concurrently with prescription drugs and psychiatric medications.

Medicinal uses: Eschscholzia has three important uses in the herbalist’s armamentarium: as a relaxing nervine in anxiety and nervousness; as a sedative in insomnia; and as an anodyne in pain. Michael Moore recommends Eschscholzia tincture in anxiety and nervousness, where there are “…skin hypersensitivities and peripatetic movements” (1993, 112). As an anxiolytic California Poppy should be taken in smaller doses, combined with herbs such as Pulsatilla (Anenome pulsatilla). When used in higher doses California Poppy acts as a sedative, inducing in some a pleasant drowsy feeling, not enough to promote marked sedation, but powerful enough that tasks such as driving or operating machinery are best avoided under its influence. In states of pain, such as intestinal colic, rheumatism, toothaches and earaches, California Poppy can be dosed in higher amounts, Moore recommending that it be combined with Valeriana for a stronger effect (1993, 112). A more recent usage for Eschscholzia is in the treatment of heroin addiction and withdrawal. Donna Odierna, herbalist and director of the H.E.A.L.T.H. Needle Exchange clinic in Oakland, California, uses Eschscholzia as the primary ingredient in her clinic’s “Kick Juice,” along with smaller amounts of Vitex agnus castus, Avena sativa, Piper methysticum and Verbena officinalis (2001). In her practice with heroin and methadone addicted patients, Odierna has found this formula helpful to both wean patients off of opioids, as well as to reduce the frequency and amount of heroin or methadone used (2001). Eschscholzia is on the weaker end of the spectrum when it comes to the papaveraceous remedies, and while some people experience definite effects with California Poppy, others may experience no sedative effect whatsoever, and thus require the stronger relatives such as Papaver and Meconopsis. Despite the temptation to use these potent sedative herbs in chronic conditions, when care is not taken, their regular administration may mask or obscure the progression of a disease. Poppy is thus not a herb for chronic use, and although a better remedy than benzodiazepines from an addictive potential, attention should always be directed to the cause of the condition, rather than the suppression of symptoms. Felter and Lloyd state that where the patient has a hard, small pulse, with a dry tongue, flushed face, bright eyes, and contracted pupils, the stronger acting poppies are best avoided. Instead these remedies will tend to benefit the patient when the pulse is soft and open, lacking hardness, when the skin is soft, the tongue moist, the face pale, and the eyes dull (1893). Although remedies such as Opium Poppy are of great use as an anodyne and analgesic, Felter and Lloyd considered Eschscholzia to be an “…analgesic and soporific without the dangers attending opiates, quieting pain and producing (a) calm sleep” (1893). Externally, the various Poppies can be used to treat pain and arrest local inflammation, used as a lotion, liniment, or plaster. Michael Moore states that the fresh plant extract of California Poppy is more active than the dried herb (1993, 112). The bitter taste of California Poppy makes the infusion a compliance issue.

Pharmacy and dosage:

Fresh Plant Tincture: immature seed capsule, whole herb, 1:2, 95% alcohol, 10-60 gtt
Dry Plant Tincture: dried herb, 1:4, 50% alcohol, 10-60 gtt
Hot Infusion: dried herb, 1:20, 100-200 mL
Powder: dried herb, 500-3000 mg