Corncockle Sunset ~ Nature Photo 6

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These are the seed heads of a lovely plant that was once to be seen in English  corn- fields, but is now almost extinct in the wild. And here it is in its full flowering glory…

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…the Corncockle aka Agrostemma githago aka Kiss-me-quick.

This stately annual plant was also the target of shock-horror media hysteria a couple of years ago.

And why? You may well wonder.

It apparently all began with a well-meaning gesture by the BBC’s Countryfile programme. Courtesy of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, they were giving away packets of wild-flower seeds that contained corncockle. There was huge demand. Suddenly everyone was sowing wild flower gardens.

Next some individual in Royal Wootton Bassett, a small market town in Wiltshire, noticed that the plant had appeared in a garden created by the Brownies in the local park. He, having ‘googled’ it, raised the alarm, pronouncing the plant deadly. The Town Council then had the plant fenced off and eliminated, and it all became a matter for the national press as more and more sightings of the plant were made across the land.

The Telegraph’s headline positively screamed with indignation:

BBC spreads poisonous wild flowers across Britain

And from the Daily Mail we have:

The plant that can kill

In an eminently sensible press account Patrick Barkham of the Guardian  tried to bring  perspective and rationality to the panic:

This kerfuffle is a huge overreaction, given that many of our most popular garden plants are poisonous, including daffodils, laurel, ivy, yew, hellebores, lupins and particularly foxgloves. In fact, we have lived alongside poisonous plants for centuries, and many toxic species are particularly useful to medicine and are used in life-saving drugs. Even parts of plants we eat, such as potatoes, are toxic.

And the real story?

Corncockle, it seems, arrived in Britain back in the Iron Age over two thousand years ago. Its seeds were present in imports of rye grain from Europe, and it soon became established on the lighter soils of southern England. Thereafter, and into the 20th century the plant could be found among the nation’s arable and cereal crops. Then improved methods of seed cleaning were introduced, and together with extensive herbicide use, this led to the plant’s virtual extinction in the wild.

The plant does  have toxic properties. This is what  Monique Simmonds, Head of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew’s Sustainable Uses of Plants Group has to say:

This plant, like many we have in our gardens, does contain compounds that can be toxic if eaten in large amounts or eaten frequently over a period of time. The toxic compounds are in higher concentrations in the seeds, which are hard and very bitter. If eaten by a child, the child would most likely be sick or complain of a stomach ache. There is no evidence that eating a few seeds would cause acute toxicity.

In the past, problems associated with toxicity occurred in Europe when flour contaminated by corn cockle seeds was consumed in bread, and this contaminated bread was eaten over a period of time. The fact that there are very few reports about any form of toxicity to humans in other parts of Europe, where the plants are more common, indicates that although toxic, the plant is not considered a high risk.

Plants for the Future website explains further:

The seed and leaves are poisonous, containing saponin-like substances. Although poisonous, saponins are poorly absorbed by the human body and so most pass through without harm. Saponins are quite bitter and can be found in many common foods such as some beans.

What concerns me about this story is how easily people can be stirred into panic and demonizing tactics by manipulative and exaggerated press coverage. And over a flower that has absolutely no appetizing qualities whatsoever. Of course that doesn’t mean we should not be aware of the toxic qualities of plants. We definitely should be. People sadly do die from eating poisonous plants. But we don’t need to feel afraid of their very existence. The problem is when we lose connection with our natural environment, it leaves room for the kind of scare-mongering that seeks to make us feel like victims – and all, and only to sell newspapers. Obviously this goes for many more serious issues and situations too.

But then you never do know. Maybe the denizens of the plant kingdom have it in for us. Maybe they are just biding their time, thinking up cunning ways to lure us into eating their poisonous parts.

Quick! Surround the lupins and hellebores! Cut them off at the roots before we’re driven to eat them and DIE!

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 NB. For well-informed details about poisonous plants see The Poison Garden website.

 #7-daynaturephotochallenge Day 6

31 thoughts on “Corncockle Sunset ~ Nature Photo 6

  1. Manipulative and exaggerated press – they are so full of bad vibes and people are gullible. I wonder why is it called “kiss me quick” 🙂 I love the photos, Tish.

    1. I’m only guessing – but the flowers sort of unfurl and individual blooms perhaps don’t last very long. I shall pay more attention if they grow again this summer along our fence. Mine were a result of a wildflower packet of seeds. In fact they were the only ones that germinated.

    1. Thanks, Sue, and yes, I rather wish I hadn’t brought up that angle myself. Gets one so darn agitated. Never mind toxic plants – toxic press is far more deadly to mind and spirit.

  2. what a lot of aggro for Agrostemma. Too many drama queens with no perspective on life dominate the news it seems. I’ve just purchased Monkshood but won’t harvest it for consumption 👿 and have been surprised to see Castor Oil plant growing in a public space. Your very striking images show why corn cockle warms our hearts though I had always known it as a white flower. Had to check and indeed there is an alba version too 🙂

    1. If we set out to rid our neighbourhoods of all potentially dangerous things, I wonder what we’d be left with. Not much. A white corncockle would be nice to see.

  3. Oh Tish, this sort of thing make me so angry and I am quite sure sends my blog pressure sky high. How stupid have we become? Such a beautiful asset to our countryside, and one that has been with us for centuries….used as bate to stir up all the craziness the press can muster.! May our beautiful land be covered again with indigenous plants, and may we Brits regain our sanity….Janet:)

  4. Ignorance induced fear/knee jerk reaction. If you Google ”plants dangerous to pets if ingested” , for example, you will end up uprooting almost everything and have no option but to go for a ”Portuguese garden” – concrete painted green.
    And who didn’t grow up knowing that rhubarb leaves are poisonous?
    First time I heard of Kiss me Quick was in the Terry Pratchett novel, I shall wear Midnight.

    They corncockle are very pretty. And the first photograph is a knockout.

    As kids we used to ramble over The Heath in Royston at my Gran’s spot and pick oodles of wild flowers. I wonder if there are any left?

    One of Pratchett’s characters would get upset if people picked wild flowers and said if the gods wanted people to pick them they would have made more!
    Which I think is a very clever way of saying … leave ’em alone!

    1. You’re right. So many kids (perhaps the potentially most vulnerable) wouldn’t eat a juicy lettuce when presented to them on a plate. So munch through some fibrous corncockle – why would you?

  5. Funny old world we live in, isn’t it? Only not so funny, sometimes, Tish 😦 But I love your opening photo! There’s such romance to it. 🙂

    1. We humans do have a tendency to lose sight of the bigger picture – the things that actually matter, and require us to take some action to resolve/deal with etc

      1. “They said it on tv…”
        “I red it on the paper….”
        It seems that both tv and Press have turned into the modern Bible , doesn’t it?
        Thanks for this post ,so full of interest and lovely captures!

  6. “The problem is when we lose connection with our natural environment, it leaves room for the kind of scare-mongering that seeks to make us feel like victims – and all, and only to sell newspapers.” Exactly!
    I couldn’t help thinking that, a few years ago, this story would have been read as though it were the script for a satirical comedy (Royal Wooten Bassett and the Brownies — comic genius). Now it’s all too believeable, and yes, part of a wider problem of disconnect, and trying to fix symptoms in isolation of the bigger issue. Sigh!

    1. Actually you wonder how this silly affair made the poor (deemed offending) Brownies feel. The person who blew the whistle on their corncockle outbreak was so sure he was right, front page appearance in the local press and all that; council right to save populace from deadly plant etc. John Cleese and Eric Idle could have made much of this scenario. Perhaps ridicule is the only defence.

      1. Yes; it’s particularly horrible that little kids got blamed. Of course, in the hands of Monty Python Brown Owl would be played by Terry Jones and the man from Wootten Bassett would be perfect for John Cleese!

  7. Oh dear, seed heads of mass destruction!!! How bad and stupid can the media get. It must’ve been a slow news day that day… Very interesting information. I believe the English hedgerows are just about devoid of wild flowers now a days.

    1. You’ll be glad to know the hedgerows are fighting back these days – at least they are in Shropshire along the roadsides. Inside the field boundaries is of course another matter. Actually motorway embankments have become quite a haven too for disappearing plants like cowslips. But yes, very daft media reactions.

      1. I do remember great swathes of Yorkshire with the hedges ripped out for huge cereal fields. I imagine they are pretty bereft due to all the chemical creep.

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