Ergot has been in the news recently. Ergot (Claviceps purpurea) is a parasite of our cereal grains rye, wheat, barley, and oats, as well as other grasses including quackgrass and smooth brome. There are some heavy infestations of ergot in some grain fields this year.
Not only does it parasitize the plant, thus potentially reducing grain yields, but it can turn what normally would develop into the grain into a large, hard, purplish-black mass of fungal material called a sclerotium, a perennating structure of the fungus which helps it withstand adverse environmental conditions.
Some of you may have heard the news warning against feeding ergot contaminated grain to livestock. Those ergot sclerotia are a cornucopia of nasty chemicals, one of which is lysergic acid. If you are not familiar with that chemical, you have probably heard about the close relative lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. It doesn’t take much ergot in feed to cause livestock some serious problems, gangrene being one of them. And if humans happen to ingest it, well, that has a long history.
Humans have been exposed to ergot infected grain for millennia. During the Middle Ages, what we now call ergotism was called St. Anthony’s Fire. It was so named because one of the symptoms is a fierce burning sensation. Symptoms of ergotism may also include hallucinations, mental aberrations, muscle spasms, tremors, paralysis, and crawling or tingling sensations of the skin. The fatality rates for some historical outbreaks has been estimated to be as high as 40%.
There is also evidence that ergotism may have been a contributing factor leading to the Salem witch trails. Rye is particularly susceptible to ergot, and rye bread was a popular bread of that time. Furthermore, the weather in that area is thought to have been conducive to an outbreak of this fungal parasite. Religious and sociological factors were also involved.
But, interestingly, there is a upside to the chemistry of ergot. Over 1,000 compounds have been produced from chemicals found in ergot, and over 40 alkaloids from the fungus have been studied. Ergot extracts may aid childbirth and treat migraine headaches. One of the trade names of a migraine headache medicine is Cafergot, which, as you might expect is a mixture of caffeine and an ergot extract.