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Claviceps purpurea, ergot fungus

Summary

For many hundreds of years this highly toxic fungus, which finds a host in cereal crops, caused many thousands of deaths without anyone knowing of its existence.

Family

Clavicipitaceae

Meaning of the Name

Claviceps
From the Latin ‘clava’, ‘club’ with the suffix ‘-ceps’, ‘-headed’ from its shape.
 
Purpurea
purple

Common Names and Synonyms

ergot, ergot rust, ergot of rye, mother of rye

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Ergot fungus contains a number of harmful substances collectively called the ergot alkaloids. Some of these alkaloids have been isolated and their effects studied but this page is concerned with the fungus, as a whole, not these individual alkaloids.

Ingestion of claviceps purpurea has three principal effects though the balance between them can vary from sample to sample.

Uterine contractions can be caused leading to miscarriage.

The blood supply to the extremities can be restricted leading to a burning pain in the hands and feet. This condition is one of those called 'St Anthony's Fire' and can lead to gangrene which, if untreated by amputation, may be fatal.

A third of the ergot alkaloids is a close relative of LSD and is, therefore, strongly hallucinogenic.

In the days before the recognition of the effects of the fungus and moves to prevent it entering the food chain, outbreaks of ergot poisoning would occur regularly resulting in thousands of deaths. These outbreaks seem to coincide with very wet summers; the fungus thriving in wet, warm conditions.

Incidents

Modern control methods are designed to prevent ergot fungus, which forms on rye and, to a lesser extent, wheat, from entering the food chain via bread products but there are, still occasional outbreaks.

The true cause of the outbreak of poisoning in the French village of Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1951 has never been fully explained but ergot-like alkaloids remain the most likely culprit.

My own view is that, although it is very unlikely that a firm conclusion could ever be reached, the most probable cause was Aspergillus fumigatus not Claviceps purpurea.

A full discussion of the evidence I have read and the conclusions reached is now on a page about Aspergillus fumigatus.

Folklore and Facts

Outbreaks of ergot poisoning occurred frequently in mediaeval times, especially in a damp year when the fungus could thrive. The most common effect was the constriction of the blood vessels producing a burning sensation in the limbs, known as St Anthony’s Fire. This name was applied because many victims recovered after a pilgrimage to St. Anthony's shrine. It is now known that removing a victim from the source of the fungus leads the condition to abate. Without this knowledge and without the money to undertake a pilgrimage, many victims developed gangrene resulting in the need for amputation. It was these amputations which formed a large part of the surgery performed at Soutra Aisle, south of Edinbirgh, where a mixture of hemlock, henbane and opium poppy was used as a sedative to keep patients asleep for up to 96 hours after the trauma of the operation.

Ergot fungus has been used to try and explain strange historic events. It has been suggested that the initial accusations of witchcraft made in Salem, Massachusetts, which became the subject of Arthur Miller's play 'The Crucible', were made by women suffering hallucinations after ingesting ergot. Mass hysteria then produced the full traumatic events.

Ergot has been offered as one possible explanation of the mystery of the 'Mary Celeste'. In this version of the story, the ship was supplied with contaminated wheat for the galley and the entire crew suffered ergot poisoning. Driven mad both by the ergot and the burning pain in their extremities they decided to jump into the sea to quell the flames of St. Anthony's Fire.

Lack of scientific evidence can lead to substances being implicated in incidents without any justification. The Dancing Plague of Strasbourg in 1518 is sometimes said to have resulted from ergot poisoning but the symptoms displayed by the victims do not match any of those associated with the ergot alkaloids, other than the mental distress. John Waller believes it to have been mass hysteria.

There is also the bizarre story which is said to be recorded in the ‘official medical records’, whatever they are, of a woman suffering from the gangrene which ergot poisoning can cause. She was riding a horse to hospital to have a leg amputated when the horse brushed against a bush by the side of the road causing the leg to fall off.

IMPORTANT NOTE

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Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
Salix alba, white willow
Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Verbascum olympicum, Greek mullein
Vinca major, greater periwinkle
Viscum album, mistletoe
Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree