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…
…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