Ergotism or St Anthony’s Fire

January 13th 2023

Ergotism or St Anthony’s Fire

This is one fungus that you could quite easily overlook, but certainly would not want to consume. It is called Claviceps purpurea and its common name is Ergot.

The fungus causes a type of poisoning now referred to as ergotism, or you might have heard of ‘St. Anthony’s fire’, [this link takes you away from our website]. It infects various grains from wild grasses to domesticated varieties of wheat, barley and oat. The obvious sign is when individual infected grains become dark, hard ergots. These infected grains get mixed with other healthy grains at harvest time and go through the milling process.

The resulting flour is then baked and consumed causing symptoms of burning followed by gangrene in hands and feet. One other set of symptoms can be epileptic-like convulsions, headaches and hallucinations.

Ergotism has caused thousands of deaths in the past, but is much less common today as the varieties of wheat, etc. used in flour production are treated/adapted to prevent infection by Claviceps purpurea.

These photographs show a wild grass, found near Oldany, bearing several ergots or sclerotia. The ergots eventually fall from the grass, and their hard covering protects the fungus during the winter. When the conditions are right the following spring tiny ‘mushrooms’ sprout from the ergot. These in turn produce spores and so the cycle starts again.

One theory regarding the ‘Mary Celeste’ sailing ship is that the crew were suffering from ergotism of the convulsion-hallucination variety.

Lots of bits in this post for further reading! Enjoy.

D. Haines

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