In honor of the warmer weather and sunshine, IPC will feature one toxic plant per month on our blog. The plants of the world are filled with chemical compounds that interact with receptors in the human body and many of them have quite a long sordid history (and present) in art, literature and of course science and medicine.
I’m getting a little tricky here with the first plant post because my personal favorite toxic/medicine growing thing is not technically a plant; it’s a fungus: Claviceps Purpurea. It contaminates rye and other grains, especially when the weather is cool and moist and there is a delayed harvest. C Purpurea is responsible for ergotism, which is caused by the numerous toxins the fungus produces including ergotamine (the biggie), histamine, tyramine, isomylamine, acetylcholine, and acetaldehyde. Recordings of grain contamination by C Purpurea date back to the stone tablets of 600 BC. Ergotamine is a precursor for Lysergic Acid Diethyamide (LSD or acid), and is actually what Dr Albert Hoffman was tinkering with when he serendipitously discovered the hallucinogen.
There are numerous reports of significant C Purpurea toxicity in the middle ages: those afflicted developed a horrible burning sensation in their extremities. The sensation persisted and worsened until the extremities would eventually turn black and essentially ‘die’. The only reported way to obtain relief from this condition was to travel to the shrine of St Anthony. The monks of St Anthony would care for the afflicted by using balms to stimulate circulation or performing amputations of the necrotic limbs. I’m sure the monks were good caregivers, but the real reason for their improvement was likely because the ergotism sufferers would stop eating the contaminated grains during their journey to the shrine and once they were there. This why ergotism is known as “St Anthony’s Fire” (after the shrine and the burning sensation patients experienced). Ergot works in the body by constricting blood vessels, and this effect is exaggerated in the far extremities, which are the farthest away from the heart and already have the smallest blood vessels. The real cause and mechanism behind ergotism was not recognized until the 1800s; until then, it was viewed as a punishment from God.
In fact, legend has it that ergotism was the cause of, or at least a contributor to, the Salem witch trials of 1692-93. It is reported that the weather conditions during this time period were ripe for the contamination of grain by C Purpurea. Aside from the blood vessel constriction, ergotism symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, strange compulsions, muscle contractions, ringing in the ears, psychosis and so on (as may be expected knowing that it is a close cousin of LSD). Combine those symptoms with the inequality, land disputes and religious bickering of Salem at the time, add a little mass hysteria and poof: witches that need hanging. Many expert scientists and historians have dismissed the fungus as being at least the sole cause of the “bewitchment” but it certainly makes for a great story.
There have been other epidemics of ergotism in history, one of the more famous occurred in France in 1951. An article in TIME describes it, “…two men who had seemed to be recovering dashed through the narrow streets shouting that enemies were after them. A small boy tried to throttle his mother. Among the stricken, delirium rose: patients thrashed wildly on their beds, screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies, that their heads had turned to molten lead. Pont-Saint-Esprit’s hospital reported four attempts at suicide.”
Aside from being an infliction from God, a possible contributing cause of bewitchment, and a few atoms away from being LSD, ergot alkaloids are used in therapeutically in pharmaceuticals to this day. Forms of the fungus toxin are used to treat migraine headaches, and in obstetrics. Stringent inspection of grain by the US government has made accidental ergotism a thing of the past; in some years as much as 36% of all grain is rejected because it contains C Purpurea. So next time you are enjoying that pastrami on rye bread sandwich, think of this peculiar little fungus and be glad you’re not eating it!