Corn Cockle

(Agrostemma githago) A cornfield pest at one time, largely eradicated now, and becoming increasingly scarce. Pest, because the seeds contain a poisonous element that has caused the death of domestic animals when feeding stuffs have been contaminated with them (Long. 1924). Animals will usually avoid the growing plant, but dogs and young animals are the most susceptible (Forsyth). It has been claimed that baking or grilling will destroy the toxic principle, but Forsyth denied this strongly. Bread containing it is greyish, tastes bitter and smells bad. No wonder steps were taken to get rid of it: in France, the pulling of cockle from the corn used to form an integral part of the Fête des Brandons, the first Sunday in Lent (Chambers. 1870), and a similar "corn-showing" in England (Vickery. 1995). As Gerard said, "what hurt it doth among corne, the spoile of bread, as well in colour, taste and unwholesomeness, is better knowne than desired"; perhaps these were the "tares" of the parable, that the devil sowed in wheat. Anyway, Shakespeare had a proverb for it: "Sow'd cockle rep'd no corn" (Love's labour's lost. Act iv; scene 3). The word cockle is OE coccul, Latin coccum, a berry, the large round seeds being likened to berries. The word used to be applied to any noxious weed growing in the corn, particularly darnel (Ellacombe).

The seeds furnished a divination game in some parts of France. To know if the coming year would be good or bad, the seeds would be pulled off individually, and numbered off one by one in the style of 1. Pain; 2. vin; 3 viande; 4. Foin, and so on (Sebillot).

In spite of its poisonous nature, it had its medicinal uses in times gone by. Incredible as it may sound, the seeds were apparently a quite common laxative in the Middle Ages! Archaeologists have found them, some crushed as if in an apothecary's mortar, in cesspits of the 13th and 14th centuries (Platt). Hill was still recommending them in the 18th century. They "open all obstructions", he said.

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