Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Curse of Corncockle

Corncockle Agrostemma githago is an essential component of every annual wild flower mix these days, thanks to its inherent beauty but perhaps also because it symbolises of the long-lost days before agricultural intensification and the advent of modern herbicides that wiped out so many cornfield weeds. But, back in the days when horses and hard manual labour were the essential tools for farming these pretty flowers were an unwelcome sight in a wheat field. Corncockle is a prolific seed producer and if the seeds were milled they contaminated the flour. Here's the advice of George Sinclair F.L.S., F.H.S., Gardener to the Duke of Bedford,  writing in The Weeds of Agriculture published in the 1840s:

'The miller's objection to these seeds is, that their black husks break so fine as to pass the boulters, and render the flour specky; also, because the seed is bulky, if there be much in the sample, it detracts considerably from the produce in flour: whatsoever is not wheat, must lower the value of that which should be all wheat.

It is the duty and interest of farmers to meet their customers the millers with clean samples; for the latter never forget to make use of every objection to beat down the price. "I would give you the other shilling if it were not for the cockle", is a common conclusion to one of these bargains: so a farmer having a hundred quarters of wheat grown in one field, loses five pounds by sowing a little cockle.'

In Sinclair's day the only solution for a farmer with cockle seed in his harvest was to resort to laborious sieving. ' A cockle sieve is therefore necessary, and will be found, for other purposes, very useful in a barn,' he advised. No doubt he would be appalled that anyone should deliberately sow this plant.

Sinclair's advice on this and other weeds is contained in the fourth edition of his Hortus gramineus woburnensis or, An account of the results of experiments on the produce and nutritive qualities of different grasses and other plants used as the food of the more valuable domestic animals: instituted by John, duke of Bedford. The 1826 edition, full of insights into growing grasses productively on farms, is available as a free e-book here and other editions are downloadable here.

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