Prickly Poppy by J. Zane Walley

To appear in the “Ask Your Herbalist” column, a plant must have an oral or written history of folk use in at least three separate and distinct cultures. The common Prickly Poppy (Argemone mexicana) richly meets that criteria. In addition to the abundance of recorded historic use, its pharmaceutical properties are documented in a score of modern medical research papers.


Argemone was a word given by the Greeks to plants which were healing to the eyes. Native Americans used the Poppy for colic pains, and in the treatment of gall-bladder colic. The plant is called Tashmezg in Arab countries and used as soothing oil, diuretic, ophthalmic, hepatic, laxative, and for treatment of constipation, dysentery, jaundice, skin rash, and ulcers. Dr. Bosisio E Colombo, Institute of Pharmacological Sciences, University of Milan, Italy, notes in his thesis on the Prickly Poppy that it has a long history as being useful for the treatment of many diseases in European countries. This plant is also of great interest for its use in Chinese herbal medicine. The Instituto Mexicano De Medicinas Tradicionales in Mexico City has documented dozens of folk uses of the plant by traditional Indian healers. In short, Argemone has a solid history of use and cultivation in The Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia.


Prickly Poppy grows wild throughout the Southwest from sea level to 8,000 feet elevation. It is a scrappy, lackluster, bristly, plant until the dazzling white or yellow blossoms open in late spring. It is common along roadsides, overgrazed pastures, and watersheds. Even during severe drought, it thrives amidst brown desert vegetation.


The School of Pharmacy, University of Salerno, Italy conducted a study that examined the effect of compounds from the Prickly Poppy on morphine withdrawal in guinea pigs. The isolated compounds significantly diminished the physical and mental effects of withdrawal. The results suggest that the plant alkaloids may be potential agents in the treatment of drug abuse.

Dr. Beliaeva Faddeeva of Russia recently evaluated the plant for use in reducing cancerous tumors. His documented, controlled study found that extracts and purified compounds (Sanguinarine and ellipticine) from the Poppy, exhibit antiviral, anti-tumor and anti-microbial properties. Dr. Latz Schmeller of The Institute for Biological Pharmaceuticals at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, found in a similar experiment that the active constituents berberine, palmatine, and sanguinarine create chemical defenses against microorganisms and are valuable in treating benign and malignant tumors. Dr Schmeller further found they inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungi, and viruses.

The University of Palermo, Italy, School of Dentistry, and the Department of Oral Medicine & Pathology, London, conducted laboratory experiments to investigate the anti-fungal properties of seven commercial mouth rinses containing anti-microbial agents extracted from Prickly Poppy. These results suggest that mouth rinses containing those natural compounds might represent an appropriate alternative to conventional anti-fungal drugs in the management of gingival plaque. These dentifrice benefits were further verified in a study conducted by the Department of Oral Health Practice-Periodontics, University of Kentucky, College of Dentistry.

No doubt this accounting of research references is a bit overwhelming. It is presented to show the concentrated interest the world medical community has in this common roadside plant. Further, these lab tests indicate that folk practitioners had discovered many of the Prickly Poppy’s benefits.


Prickly Poppy may be collected when the plant is in flower and has formed a green seedpod, then again when the pod has dried, but not opened. To collect in flower, use heavy gloves, pull up the entire plant, and hang in the shade to dry. When collecting dry pods, merely snap it off, being sure to stomp a few seeds into the ground so the plant can regenerate. Separate the seeds from the pods by winnowing or sifting.



For a superior analgesic or antiseptic ointment, grind seeds into a paste, warm over low heat in twice the volume of lard, petroleum jelly, or lanolin. Let cool and repeat the melting process several times; the last time strain into a wide mouth glass jar. Boiling a quart of water, and adding two ounces of the herb makes the tea. When the tea is cool it is ready for use.


Drink the tea for nerve, muscle, glandular and prostatitis pain. The tea has distinct antispasmodic effects and can modify the distress of diarrhea cramps and stomachache. It also helps pain and distress caused from indigestion, premenstrual conditions, or menopause. The tea is also a much better sleep-aid than you can buy over the counter and is equal to many prescription drugs for this purpose. The salve is excellent for insect bites, scrapes, burns, hemorrhoids, and works wonders on sunburns.


Excessive or continued use of Prickly Poppy will result in edema. (Severe fluid retention in body cavities and tissues.) PERSONS WITH KNOWN OR SUSPECTED GLAUCOMA SHOULD NOT USE THIS PLANT. IT WILL SEVERELY AGGRAVATE THE CONDITION.

“Do not undervalue the headache. While it is at its sharpest it seems a bad investment; but when relief begins, the unexpired remainder is worth $4 a minute.”

Mark Twain

“Strictly speaking, there is but one real evil: I mean acute pain.”

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu


Pain hardens, and great pain hardens greatly, whatever the comforters say, and suffering does not ennoble, though it may occasionally lend a certain rigid dignity of manner to the suffering frame.”

A. S. Byatt