Opium poppies and evolution

God help us, another evolution thread…

Okay, my argument: most medicinal plants evolved their active ingredient through self preservation, for example…

Digitalis is a heart medication derived from the foxglove plant. In small doses it dialates the blood vessels, in large it causes violent siezures and death. Same thing with Ephidrine (found in several plants and used for athsma). Quinine, a chemical found in the bark of the Cinchona ledgeriana tree kills both the local weevils and the local malaria parasite.

Now, I can see how plants that produce these bio-active chemicals would survive by sickening the hapless bunnies and bugs who nibbled them. Over countless generations the potent chemicals would be more refined through natural selection.

But what about opium?

I can’t imagine dumb luck caused this plant to create a highly complex chemical wich not only mimics the juice of the primary pleasure centers, but is just different enough to resist the bodies attempts to break it down as well.
So, whats the benifit of creating a substance so good that it will just bring the critters back for more?


Morphine is an alkaloid. All, or almost all, of the alkaloids are neurotoxins to insects. All (or some, can’t remember exactly) alkaloids mess with bugs’ acetylcholine channels in ways which are very deadly - quite like a nerve gas in humans. Alkaloids do different things in mammals; our acetylcholine channels are also affected, by are different enough for the effect to be stimulation, depression, anxiety, euphoria etc… I’m going to try to find a source for this.

Other alkaloids:

Okay Boris, good point. Still, wouldn’t the pleasant narcotic effect on mammals negate the insceticide effect? Whats the point of screwing up the local poppy weevils (or whatever) only to attract junkie bunnies?

For more on the analogies between alkaloids and nerve gas: http://www.uky.edu/~holler/neurotox.html

For more on the less dire effects of alkaloids: http://daphne.palomar.edu/wayne/ww0703.htm

That’s a good question. And the answer is: I don’t know. Here are some theories:

The bunnies which become junkies might die, even though the morphine isn’t lethal. Perhaps they get so stoned that wolves find them easy prey. Certainly catnip-intoxicated cats seem like less-than-effective predators … perhaps only humans have the social structure necessary to support junkies.

Perhaps, for the poppies, insects are simply a much greater threat. Insects can climb or fly all over the plant, where vertebrates might be more limited in what they can prey on. Insects also reproduce very quickly, which might make them a greater threat even than bunnies.

I’ve heard statistics about some plants losing huge fractions of their leaf area to insects - something that would be hard for mammals to match, given that mammals are less numerous and don’t tend to pack as tightly. I.e. a thousand insects might prey on a single plant, but a thousand rabbits aren’t going to gather for very long in the same place before the raptors get interested.

I’m also not sure if ordinary poppies have enough morphine and codeine (sp?) in them to really make a junkie vertebrate. Perhaps the natural plants have enough insecticide in them to kill bugs, but not enough to attract other creatures.

Also, alkaloids tend to taste quite bitter. Perhaps this is enough of a deterrent to mammals to cancel out the “junkie effect”. Rabbits seem to have similar tastes to humans, at least they seem to prefer lettuce and tomatoes to poison ivy and pinecones.

I suppose that muddies the waters pretty thoroughly.

Yep, pretty muddy alright, but I like the sluggish junkie bunny theory.

As for the effectivness of raw, unrefined opium, I can attest to it (Hey, it was purely research, besides I was young(er)).

Your right about the bitterness, and it has a somewhat repellant rotten fruit smell. But very relaxing and the only adverse reaction of note was a miserable case of constipation.

And now that I think about it the active ingredient might only be concentrated in the flower pod area, anybody got the straight dope (Pun!) on that?.

Ah hah.
I KNEW I remembered seeing pictures of scored seed casings, and painstaking scraping.


This is in response to the question on how it is gathered, btw.

Could the laxative effect cause ingested seeds to ‘pass’ undigested?
Tomato seeds ‘pass’, maybe poppy seeds too?

We have met the enemy, and He is Us.–Walt Kelly

I wondered about the effect of passing live seeds undigested. The thing is, opiates usually have an anti-laxative effect. That’s why hard druggies sometime by lots of Ex Lax.

Other alkaloids might have the opposite effect though. Narcotics are smooth muscle relaxants - they make your intestines lazy - this is the anti-laxative effect I mentioned above. Plenty of alkaloids have non-narcotic drug effects - hallucination and stimulation, for example.