Monday, August 10, 2009

Holy Fire


These sinister-looking little objects, shaped like claws and growing amongst the florets of cock’sfoot grass, are the fungal fruiting bodies of ergot Claviceps purpurea. This is a species with a notorious history, that contains toxins causing two forms of a disease called ergotism in those who eat rye grains contaminated with the fungus. Alkaloids in the fungus cause contraction in the muscles lining minor blood vessels and capillaries, so that the body’s extremeities are starved of blood, wither, develop gangrene and drop off. Convulsive ergotism causes pins-and-needles symptoms known as formication, a feeling that swarms of ants are running around just below the surface of the skin, in addition to violent convulsions. The fungus also contains compounds akin to LSD, causing delusions; people affected have been known to throw themselves out of windows, in the belief that they can fly. Ergotisn was rife in the Middle Ages amongst people who mainly ate rye bread, this cereal being particularly susceptible to attacks by the fungus. Then, the disease was known as ‘Holy Fire’ or ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’. Like many poisons, the active compounds in ergot have medicinal uses and the fungus was once deliberately cultured to produce drugs that induce muscular contractions and induce childbirth. Ergot is quite common on wild grasses at this time of year, particularly around here on cock’sfoot grass and false oat grass. These specimens were photographed in the Derwent Valley on the Durham/Northumberland border at the weekend. It infects a wide range of species and a few years ago I saw some particularly large specimens growing in the florets of cord-grass (Spartina) on the salt marsh at Grange-over-Sands. Only a tiny fungus, but one with a fearsome reputation and an interesting history.

4 comments:

  1. Another of your fascinating pieces, Phil. The growths certainly do look sinister.

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  2. When I first looked at the top picture I thought it really was a claw!
    Fascinating post again Phil.

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  3. Hi Emma,from time to time ergot in wild grasses can create problems for grazing livestock

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  4. Hi Keith, once you spot ergot you tend to notice it all over the place. There seems to be a lot of it about around here this summer.

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