Ergot Claviceps purpurea, is the most common Claviceps species found in Britain. Many of us have probably not heard of it, let alone seen it, and in autumn when it’s fully formed, it’s still very small and easily missed.
Ergot is a small fungus that can form within the flowers of wild grasses and cereal crops. It appears as hard, purplish or black protrusions (‘ergots’), replacing some of the individual grains. They remain in this state throughout the winter months, until the spores develop within them and germinate, infecting new plants as they do.
For many centuries ergot poisoning caused a mixed bag of illness, such as, gangrene, numbness, cramps, vomiting, convulsions and hallucinations. It's even been rumoured that Oliver Cromwell's violent tendencies came from eating breads which has been tainted by this small, but quite evil little fungus.
I remember reading somewhere of it causing terrible symptoms including blackened and ulcerations and rotted limbs. The particular tale I always remember was of a victim being taken off by horse and cart (in the 17 or 1800’s) and her leg falling off during the journey, the effects really are that bad!
Although recorded deaths are exceptionally low, the dangers of this particular fungus are incredibly high, the only reason it’s rare to hear of poisoning is because of modern farming techniques. Ergot is part of the reason wild grasses are not commonly gathered by foragers.
Studies of ergot led to the discovery of LSD, and although ergot itself does not contain LSD, it is derived from it, as are several drugs which are used to treat migraine, Parkinson's Disease and heart valve problems.