Rye: Quite Possibly the World’s Most Dangerous Grain

Why? Because of its high susceptibility to infection by a fungus by the name of Claviceps purpurea, otherwise known as ergot. It might not sound terribly dangerous, but trust me, ergot is no ordinary fungus. It does a whole lot more than cause unsightly yellow toenails. Ergot is thought to be have caused the deaths of thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of people over the course of Western history, caused the fall of kingdoms and laid waste to entire societies. No small feat for a spore.

But what is ergot exactly? Well until about 1850 it was so common in rye that every previous rye cultivator simply thought it was a natural part of the plant, not the infectious, toxin-producing life form that it really is. Ergot enters the rye plant through the flower in the springtime, especially in very wet years. As it grows, it replaces some of the grains on the ends of the ears producing long, dark brown growths known as “cockspurs”. It is these growths (technically known as sclerotia) that are the source of the problem in humans. However since no one understood that until the industrial age, they were simply treated like a normal aspect of rye grain, and ground up with the rest of the healthy rye to make flour.

The problem is that ergot produces a variety of toxic alkaloids, one of which is lysergic acid, a chemical cousin of lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD.

9 thoughts on “Rye: Quite Possibly the World’s Most Dangerous Grain”

  1. Ergot also saves lives in obstetrics. It has been used for many hundreds of years to stop post partum haemorrhage. We still use it today in synthetic form.

    1. Well said, Annemarie. There a lot of chemical compounds out there, once considered poisons, that have highly beneficial medical applications. It’s all about the context…and the dose of course. Thanks for a great comment!

      – Joe

  2. Funnily enough my friend was giving us a tour around Utrecht, Netherlands recemtly and was explaining this to us as well. Because the store rooms in Utrecht were along the canals, they’d flood and cause those spore growths in the rye bread. They assume this accounts for the large number of witch burnings in the area; because everyone was paranoid and tripping on LSD.

    1. Fascinating! That or people just assumed witchcraft was the cause and started burning anything suspicious. Thanks for the comment, Ace!

      – Joe

  3. No wonder midwives and witches have been inextricably linked over the years huh?

    1. Interesting idea…I wonder how long ergot has been used to stop hemorrhaging…

      – Joe

  4. Back in the 1970s, my MD gave me Cafergot pills (ergot + caffeine) for my migraine headaches. I only took them a couple times, as they made me feel out of my head and made my migraine worse.

    1. Hey Emmalee!

      Mrs. pastry suffers from migraines, so I can sympathize. She’s never tried those I don’t think, but just about everything else. They are one hard problem to beat.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

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