Mexican Prickly Poppy
Papaveraceae (Poppy Family)
Forms and Subspecies
In addition to the common yellow-blooming Argemone mexicana L. var. typica Prain, there is a white-blooming form that is known as chicalote in Mexico and is usually referred to as Argemone mexicana L. var. ochroleuca Sweet (Martínez 1987, 1050*). Another form that is almost thornless has been described under the name Argemone mexicana L. f. leiocarpa (Greene) G.B. Ownb. (Lucas 1962, 3; Grey-Wilson 1995, 74*).
There is only one named cultivar, notable for its very large and beautiful flowers (Grey-Wilson 1995, 74*): Argemone mexicana L. cv.Yellow Lustre.
Three previously described varieties are now recognized as species in their own rights (Grey-Wilson 1995, 75, 78*):
Argemone mexicana var. hispida Wats. = Argemone munita Dur. et Hilg.
Argemone mexicana var. rosea (Hook.) Reiche = Argemone rosea Hook.
Argemone mexicana var. rosea Coulter ex Greene = Argemone sanguinea Greene
Argemone alba var. leiocarpa Fedde
Argemone leiocarpa Greene
Argemone mexicana L. var. leiocarpa Prain
Argemone mexicana var. ochroleuca Britton
Argemone mucronata Dum.
Argemone ochroleuca Sweet39
Argemone ochroleuca L. var. barclayana Prain
Argemone spinosa Moench
Argemone sulphurea Sweet ex London
Argemone versicolor Salisb.
Ectrus mexicanus Nieuwland
Papaver spinosum Bauhin
Amapolas del campo (Spanish, “field poppy”), Bermuda thistle, bhatbhamt (Hindi), bird-in-the-bush, brahmadanti (Sanskrit), carbincho, cardo, cardo lechero, cardo santo (Spanish, “sacred thistle”), cardosanto, cardui flava, carhuinchu, carhuinchunca, carquincho, caruancho, chadron béni, chadron mabré, chicallotl, chicalote,40 chichicallotl, chichilotl (Aztec), chillazotl, donkey thistle, fischgemüse, fischkraut, flowering thistle, gailshe, gamboge thistle, gold thistle of Peru, guechinichi (Zapotec), h-am (Maya), hierba loca41 (Spanish, “crazy herb”), infernal fig, ixkanlol (Maya, “yellow flower”), Jamaican thistle, kantankattiri (Malayalam), kawinchu (Quechua), k’í’ix k’an lòl (modern Maya, “prickly yellow flower”), k’í’ix sák lòl (modern Maya, “prickly white flower”), kutiyotti (Tamil), Mexican poppy, Mexican prickly poppy, Mexican thistle, Mexican thorn poppy, mexikanischer stachelmohn, mihca:da:c (Mixe), mizquitl, pavero messicano (Italian), pavot du mexique, pavot espineux (French), pharamgi dhattura (Hindi), pili katili (Hindi), ponnummattai (Tamil), ponnummattu (Malayalam), prickly pepper, prickly poppy, queen thistle, satayanasi, shate (Zapotec), stachelmohn, stinking thistle, svarnasiri (Sanskrit), teufelsfeige, thistle, thistley-bush, tlamexaltzin (Nahuatl), tsolich (Huastec, “lost”), XaSáokS (Serí), xaté (Tarascan), xicólotl, yellow thistle, zèbe dragon (Creole, “dragon herb”)
During the time of the Aztecs, the prickly poppy was known as the nourishment of the dead; souls would refresh themselves on it in the realm of the dead and in the rain-rich paradise (Rätsch 1985). Prickly poppy is mentioned in numerous documents from the colonial period (Sahagun, Hernández, Yerbas y hechizerias, etc.) and in Europe was already well known by 1597, when it was described by John Gerard. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese residents of Mexico were said to produce a kind of opium from the prickly poppy that they used as a legal substitute for Papaver somniferum (Reko 1938, 94f.*). Today, the dried plant is smoked as a marijuana substitute (see Cannabis indica) and aphrodisiac. In India, the plant is called pharamgi dhattura because of its psychoactive properties, and it is regarded as a sister of Datura metel (Warrier et al. 1993, 169*).
The plant is from the American tropics but is now found throughout the world (Franquemont et al. 1990, 89*). It is common in tropical Africa (Lucas 1962) as well as India and Nepal.
Prickly poppy is very easily grown from seed. The seeds may be either simply dispersed in spring or planted in seedbeds. The plant prefers light, sandy soils, but with sufficient sunlight it can adapt to any type of soil (Grubber 1991, 23*). It can tolerate climates that are tropically moist, hot and dry, subtropical, or moderate. Under cultivation, it can thrive for two or more years.
This annual plant, which can grow up to 1 meter in height, has several branches and produces a yellowish latex. The bluish leaves are compound and have thorny ends; some are deeply retuse. The flowers, which appear singly, can grow 4 to 6 cm across and have six yellow petals. The four- or six-chambered fruits are heavily thorned capsules that stand erect and are filled with small black seeds. The plants often bear flowers and fruits at the same time. In the tropics, prickly poppy can flower throughout the year.
The Aztec name for the Mexican prickly poppy (Argemone mexicana L.) is chicallotl, “thorn.” (From Hernández, 1942/46 [Orig. pub. 1615]*)
“And all poisonous herbs are eaten in the Underworld.
And all who go to the Underworld eat prickly poppy [Argemone mexicana].
And all that is not eaten here on the Earth is eaten in the Underworld.
And it is said that nothing else is eaten.”
BERNARDINO DE SAHAGUN
IN EINIGE AUSGEWÄHLTE KAPITEL AUS DEM GESCHICHTSWERKE DES FRAY BERNARDINO DE SAHAGUN [SEVERAL SELECTED CHAPTERS FROM THE HISTORICAL WORKS OF FRA BERNARDINO DE SAHAGUN] (SELER 1927, 302f.*)
The plant is easily confused with the closely related Argemone platyceras Link et Otto (also found in Mexico) and with the North American species Argemone albiflora Hornemann and Argemone polyanthemos (Fedde) G. Ownb. [syn. Argemone alba James]. It is also very similar to the South American (Argentinean) species Argemone subfusiformis Ownb. ssp. subfusiformis, which in the local Spanish is also known cardo santo or cardo amarillo (Bandoni et al. 1972). The blue prickly poppy of Hawaii, Argemone glauca (Prain) Pope, is also very similar and is practically indistinguishable from the white-flowered Argemone mexicana var. ochroleuca. The former, however, has leaves that are somewhat bluer in color.
Occasionally, the prickly poppy may be confused with Mary’s thistle, Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn. (Grey-Wilson 1995, 74*).
Preparation and Dosage
The dried herbage can be smoked alone or in smoking blends. The latex that is tapped from the capsule can be dried and smoked. No information is available about dosages (Gottlieb 1973, 9*). In Urubamba (Peru), gringos smoke the dried flowers as a marijuana substitute (Franquemont et al. 1990, 89*). Further research is needed to determine the appropriate dosages.
Chicalote, el opio mexicano, or chicalote opium, allegedly results when Argemone mexicana is pollinated by Papaver somniferum. This “produces capsules which, in an unripe state, do indeed allow one to obtain a product which, like opium, induces self-forgetfulness and total contentment” (Reko 1938, 94*). Botanical experiments have demonstrated that this is not possible and that the idea appears to have sprung from the author’s imagination (Emboden 1972, 63f.*; Tyler 1966, 278*).
It is not entirely clear whether the Aztecs or any other Mesoamerican peoples used the prickly poppy for psychoactive purposes. Since it was regarded as a nourishment of the dead, it is possible that its consumption or use may have been controlled or prevented; in any case, its use was limited to the priests. It may have been utilized for shamanic journeys into the worlds beyond (Rätsch 1985).
The prickly poppy was a sacred plant of the Aztec rain god Tláloc, who reigned in Tlálocan, the “kingdom of dreams” (Knab 1995, 67*):
The rain was attributed to the rain god, the rain priest. He created, allowed to fall, scattered the rain and the hail, enabled the trees, the grass, the maize to blossom, sprout up, become green, burst open, grow. Moreover, he was also said to be responsible when people drowned in water or were killed by lightning.
And he was adorned in the following manner: a thick mask of soot over his face, his face painted with liquid cautschuk, he is smeared with soot; his face is spotted with a paste from the seeds of the prickly poppy, he wears the raiment of the dew, he wears the garb of the fog, he bears a crown of heron feathers, a neckband of green gems, he wears sandals of foam, and bells, he has white rushes for hair. (Sahagun, Florentine Codex 1: 4*)
Tláloc was also associated with two other psychoactive plants: iztauhiatl (Artemisia mexicana) and yauhtli (Tagetes lucida; see Tagetes spp.) (Ortiz de Montellano 1980).
The Mexican prickly poppy (Argemone mexicana) was one of the sacred plants of the Aztec rain god, Tláloc. (Codex Vaticanus 3773, fol. 23)
The white-blossomed variety of the Mexican prickly poppy (Argemone mexicana var. ochroleuca).
The typical yellow flower of the Mexican prickly poppy (Argemone mexicana) reveals its affinity with the opium poppy.
The North American prickly poppy (Argemone albiflora) produces narcotic effects similar to those of its Mexican relative. (Photographed in the Badlands, South Dakota)
Sacrificial foods that included prickly poppy seeds were prepared for a variety of ceremonies (Sahagun, Florentine Codex 2:21*). The Aztecs used prickly poppy seeds to make a dough that was ground so fine that it became a kind of tar. They used this tar to form an image of their (highest) god Huitzilopochtli. During celebrations in honor of the god, the priest would “kill” this image with a spear. Its “flesh,” which was called “god food,” was distributed among the worshippers (Sahagun, Florentine Codex 3:1, 2*).
Numerous pre-Columbian sculptures, wall paintings, frescoes, ceramics, and illuminated manuscripts depict the rain god Tláloc (García Ramos 1994). The prickly poppy, however, does not appear to have been portrayed in any of these contexts (cf. Turbina corymbosa).
The flower painter Hans Simon Holtzbecker (from Hamburg) painted a botanically correct portrait of the plant for the Gottorfer Codex (ca. 1650) (de Cuveland 1989, table 52*).
The medicinal use of prickly poppy juice to treat eye ailments is common and is found, for example, among the Mixe and the Maya (Lipp 1991, 187*; Roys 1976, 94*). The Serí Indians of northern Mexico prepare a tea from leaves wrapped in linen that they drink for kidney pains. The tea is also said to dispel the “bad” blood that accumulates during birth (Felger and Moser 1974, 427*). The Pima Indians of northern Mexico also use the leaves to treat kidney ailments (Pennington 1973, 221*); a decoction is drunk for difficulties with urination (Eldridge 1975, 316*). The Yucatec Maya utilize the plant for gallbladder disorders (Pulido and Serralta 1993, 47*).
In Peru, a plaster made of prickly poppy is used to treat muscle pains (Chavez 1977, 192*). The inhabitants of many Caribbean islands apply the latex to remove warts and use a decoction for sleeplessness and other sleep disorders. A tea from the leaves is used for asthma (Seaworth 1991, 128*).
In Ladakh, an aqueous extract of crushed leaves is used externally to treat eye diseases and eczema (Navchoo and Buth 1989, 141*). In Uttar Pradesh (India), the latex is combined with oil and cumin powder (Cuminum cyminumL.) to make a paste that is applied externally as a treatment for skin diseases, eczema, and flesh worms (Siddiqui et al. 1989, 484*). In Nigeria and Senegal, the prickly poppy is esteemed for its sedative effects. Use of the leaves as a sedative was known even in Europe (Schneider 1974, 1:123*; Watt 1967).
In Hawaii, the yellowish latex of Argemone glauca is used to treat toothaches, neuralgia, and ulcers (Krauss 1981, 44*).
Although it has often been claimed that morphine is present in the prickly poppy, this information is strongly contested (Blohm 1962, 25*). Nevertheless, the entire plant is rich in alkaloids, with a concentration of 0.125% in the roots and stalk (Roth et al. 1994, 142*). The leaves, stalks, and seeds contain the alkaloids berberine and proto-pine (fumarine, macleyine) (Oliver-Bever 1982, 30). The roots also contain coptisine, up to 0.099% α-allocryptopine (= α-fagarine), chelerythrine, and dihydrochelerythrine. The rather toxic sanguinarine and dihydrosanguinarine are also present in the seeds (Bose et al. 1963). Argemonine was isolated from the leaves and capsules and identified as N-methylpavine (Martell et al. 1963). The entire plant contains the isoquinoline alkaloids (–)-canadanine, queilantifoline, queleritrine, allocryptatopine, (–)-tetrahydropalmatine, reticuline, sanguinarine, esculerine, and meta-hydroxy-(–)-estilopine (Lara Ochoa and Marquez Alonso 1996, 37*).
Little is known about the plant’s psychoactive effects: “The seeds have a cannabis-like effect and the herb, juice and flowers are reputed to be narcotic in many countries” (Oliver-Bever 1982, 30). There are increasing reports from Mexico of aphrodisiac and euphoriant effects after smoking the dried herbage. The thickened latex has induced potent narcotic effects and delirium.
Commercial Forms and Regulations
The seeds are occasionally available in nurseries or ethnobotanical specialty shops. The plant is not subject to any regulations or legal restrictions.
See also the entries for Papaver somniferum and Papaver spp.
Bandoni, A. L., R. V. D. Rondina, and J. D. Coussio. 1972. Alkaloids of Argemone subfusiformis. Phytochemistry 11:3547–48.
Bose, B. C., R. Vijayvargiya, A. Q. Saifi, and S. K. Sharma. 1963. Chemical and pharmacological studies of Argemone mexicana. Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 52:1172.
García Ramos, Salvador. 1994. Tláloc: El dios de la lluvia. México City: GV Editores.
Lucas, G. Lloyd. 1962. Papaveraceae. In Flora of tropical East Africa. London: The Secretary for Technical Cooperation.
Martell, M. J., T. O. Soine, and L. B. Kier. 1963. The structure of argemonine, identification as (–)-methylpavine. Journal of the American Chemical Society 85:1022–23.
Oliver-Bever, B. 1982. Medicinal plants in tropical West Africa. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 5 (1): 1–71.
Ortiz de Montellano, Bernardo. 1980. Las hierbas de Tláloc. Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl 14: 287–314.
Ownbey, G. 1961. The genus Argemone in South America and Hawaii. Brittonia 13: 91–109.
Rätsch, Christian. 1985. Argemone mexicana—food of the dead. Unpublished lecture manuscript.
Stermitz, F. R., D. K. Kim, and K. A. Larson. 1973. Alkaloids of Argemone albiflora, Argemone brevicornuta and Argemone turnerae. Phytochemistry 12:1355–57.
Watt, J. M. 1967. African plants potentially useful in mental health. Lloydia 30:1–22.
The Aztecs used the seeds of Argemone mexicana for ritual purposes and associated them with the underworld. (Photograph: Karl-Christian Lyncker)
“The prickly poppy is so full of sharp and poisonous thorns that a person who has one of these stick in his throat will doubtlessly go directly to Heaven or to Hell.”
JOHN GERARD THE HERBALL
“The four of us smoked [the prickly poppy] and did more than just good to ourselves. As the stick was making its second round, an agreeable state of inebriation began in me. My head was blown free, my body was pleasurably warm, and I could feel how my blood whipped through its canals. The circle of friends gave me additional comfort, in particular as they appeared in a special glow in the evening sun. I found myself among beloved people. This feeling did not search long for an expression, but found one with gentle and yet rapid speed. My eyes lost their focus, and all of my other senses were stimulated in the most delicious manner. Even after the time of the bodies, the senses long remained in that fantastic state in which they are forbidden to perceive all those obscenities, to name all those realities, that we normally do. I found it difficult to steer my steps through the streets, to use fork and knife appropriately at the table, to enjoy the wine from a glass. The shortly measured sleep of this night—not much more than four hours—allowed us to experience the morning in complete and rested freshness.”
“EIN GANZ BESONDERS RAUSCH”
[A VERY SPECIAL INEBRIATION
IN ISOLDENS LIEBESTRANK [ISOLDEN’S LOVE DRINK]
(MÜLLER-EBELING AND RÄTSCH 1986, 142f.*)