Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pagodas in the grass

There are 3 species of cow-wheat in southern England. They are in the genus Melampyrum, from the Greek melas, black and pyros, wheat (Stearn, 1973). The name Melampyrum (μελαμπυρων) was first used by Theophrastus (Gledhill, 2008). Lyte’s herbal (1619) calls cow-wheat black-wheat, a literal translation of Melampyrum. Why black? This is probably due to its alleged ability to turn bread black when its seeds are a flour contaminant (Grigson, 1975, Grieve, 1931).

Gerard (1633 p90-1) calls cow-wheat horse-floure and Triticum vaccinium. Triticum is the genus for wheat. Vaccinium (sic vaccinum) is from the Latin meaning 'pertaining to cows'. Triticum vaccinum therefore means ‘wheat of the cow’, aka cow-wheat. None other than Linnaeus himself attributed some excellent butter he had in Sweden (near Lycksele) to abundant cow-wheat in cattle pastures (Linnaeus, 1724, p110). According to the redoubtable Mrs Grieve (1931) cows and sheep do munch cow-wheat if given half the chance. Given the conservation status of 2 of the species of cow-wheat in England this is unlikely to happen.

Cow-wheat doesn’t seem to be too popular as an herbal remedy. John Gerard’s opinion is that "The seed of Cow-Wheat raiseth up fumes, and is hot and dry of nature, which being taken in meats and drinks in the manner of Darnell, troubleth the braine, causeth drunkennesse and headaches". Sounds like the effects of chicken vindaloo and lager to me…..

All cow-wheats are hemiparasites; they obtain some of their nutritional requirements by half-inching nutrients from other plants (via their roots). They also have mutualistic relationships with ants. They are myrmecochorous; their seeds are dispersed by ants. Of course ants don’t do this out of a sense of altruism. They are paid. Cow-wheat seeds are coated at one end with tempting ant-food (known as an elaiosome). This tasty seed-coating is fed to ant larvae and the intact seed discarded. The plant achieves seed dispersal and avoids predation. The ants get food. Win win.

Common cow-wheat Melampyrum pratense
Conservation Status in UK: An ancient woodland indicator species (Rose, 1999), not under threat.
M.pratense is subtly beautiful with pale butter-yellow flowers. I came across these in a clearing in Yocklett’s Bank in Kent. They brightened up an otherwise miserably rainy day.

Common cow-wheat is a hemiparasite on woody plants and a larval food plant for the heath fritillary butterfly.

Redwood (1848, p404) has this to say about it;

I've not tried the seeds......so can't comment.

Crested cow-wheat Melampyrum cristatum
Conservation Status in UK: Vulnerable (Red Data List, 2006).

A tremendously attractive plant. Dreadfully rare. John Ray (1724, p286) says of it “In sylvis Cantabrigiensibus and Bedfordiensibus copiose”. Copious? Oh, I wish. I wish.
I am fortunate to live not too far from a verge where the crested pagoda thrives. There is more info on crested cow-wheat here from the Essex Botany Group.

Field cow-wheat Melampyrum arvense
Conservation Status in UK: Endangered (Red Data List, 2006).
Absolutely stunning but wretchedly rare wild flower. ‘No wild flower of the British Isles is more improbably flamboyant’ (Grigson, 1975). It looks like a miniature purple pagoda. It's a hemiparasite of grasses (including agricultural crops). This is the species that probably caused most consternation amongst farmers, who ’acted furiously against it’ (Grigson, 1975). It was known colloquially as poverty weed.

Gerard (1633, p90-1) declares (and I believe he's referring to field cow-wheat) that it ‘greweth among corne and in pasture grounds that be fruitfull; it groweth plentifully in the pasture grounds around London. The rest are strangers in England'. Lyte (1619) refers to this species (most likely from his description of the flowers), as being an ‘unprofitable plant growing amongst wheat’ (p117-118).

There are only 4 populations of this plant in the UK. Yikes. It’s a Bedfordshire BAP species.

A lovely collection of plants seen in the last few weeks.

There seems to be some confusion in older books (pre-Linnaeus) which species of cow-wheat is being discussed. I trust I have attributed quotes to species correctly.


Gerard, John (revised 1633 edition) Herball,or Generall Historie of Plantes. Available online at Botanicus. It is interesting that Gerard puts cow-wheat in Book 1 of his herbal, with grasses & rushes, not in Book 2.

Gledhill, D (2008) The Names of Plants. 4th Edition CUP.

Grieve, M (1931) A Modern Herbal. Page about common cow-wheat is here.

Grigson, Geoffrey (1975) The Englishman’s Flora. Paladin

JNCC (2006) Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain. Available online here.

Linnaeus (translation by Sir James Edward Smith, 1811) (1724) Lachesis Lapponica or A tour in Lapland. Full text on Google Books.

Lyte, Henry (1619) A New Herbal, or Historie of Plants. Available online here.

Ray, John (1724) Synopsis Methodica Stirpium Britannicarum. Full text available on Google Books.

Redwood, Theophilus (1848) Gray's Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia. 2nd Edition. Longman & Co. Full text on Google books.

Rose, Francis (1999) Indicators of ancient woodland: The use of vascular plants in evaluating ancient woods for nature conservation. British Wildlife, Volume 10, pps 241-251. Full text here.

Stearn, WT (1973) Botanical Latin. 2nd Edition. David & Charles.

1 comment:

  1. Now that's a very learned piece - I hope it will be published in an appropriate journal.

    You are of course duty bound, as a herbalist, to try the seeds.

    I see from NGN that field cow-wheat was once found in this corner of the UK.... no longer however.

    Great photos of lovely plants!