Friday, April 18, 2008

Opium Fields of Dixie

Every planter in the Confederate States can produce the opium that is required, either for the army or for home use. Occupied in researches upon these subjects during the month of June, under the order of the Surgeon-General, I was enabled to collect, in a few days, more than an ounce of gum opium, apparently of very excellent quality, having all the smell and taste of opium (which I have administered to the sick), from specimens of the red poppy found growing in a garden near Stateburgh, S. C. I have little doubt that all we require could be gathered by ladies and children within the Confederate States, if only the slightest attention was paid to cultivating the plants in our gardens. It thrives well, and bears abundantly. – Francis Peyre Porcher, M.D., 1863

Let’s get acquainted with one of the major figures in Civil War medicine, Francis Peyre Porcher. His opus, Resources of the southern fields and forests… being also a medical botany of the Confederate States, was published in Charleston in 1863. In light of the difficulties importing materials into the South during wartime, Porcher’s remarkable 600 page document was intended as a:

repertory of scientific and popular knowledge as regards the medicinal, economical, and useful properties of the trees, plants, and shrubs found within the limits of the Confederate States, whether employed in the arts, for manufacturing purposes, or in domestic economy,
The Regimental Surgeon in the field, the Physician in his private practice, or the Planter on his estate may themselves collect and apply these substances within their reach, which are frequently quite as valuable as others obtained from abroad, and either impossible to be procured or scarce and costly. But information scattered through a variety of sources must needs be first collected to be available in any practical point of view.



Here are some excerpts from Porcher's entry on opium production:
The poppy may become one of the most profitable crops, if we have the means of disposing of the seed, or if we knew how to extract the oil. By proper cultivation it may be made to produce from nine to ten bushels of seed per acre, and one bushel yields twenty-four pounds of good oil. This oil, especially the first portion, which is cold-pressed, and mixed in the mill with slices of apple, is doubtless the purest kind of oil for the table, and the most agreeable that is known.

In Thornton's Family Herbal a very full and interesting account can be read of the cultivation of poppy in England, with the successful production of opium in considerable quantity. Forty pounds were made in one season by one person. Boys and girls were employed in incising the bulbs and gathering the gum.

The strength of the juice, according to Dr. Butler, of British India, depends much upon the quantity of moisture of the climate. A deficiency even of dew prevents the proper flow of the peculiar, narcotic, milky juice which abounds in every part of the plant, while an excess, besides washing off this milk, causes additional mischief by separating the soluble from the insoluble parts of this drug.

In obtaining gum opium, the capsules are cut longitudinally only through the skin, though some advise that it should be done from below upward. I find longitudinal incisions the most economical. This is generally done late in the afternoon, the hardened gum being scraped off early next morning. Boys or girls can easily attend to this.

It has been calculated by Mr. Ball that more than fifty pounds of opium may be collected from one statute acre.


If the boys and girls are eager to get started on this do-it-yourself project, complete details are found on pages 23-28 of Resources of the southern fields and forests.

I believe Stephen Foster wrote a song about the opium fields of Dixie, but I've not been able to locate it yet.

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