Dear Readers, it isn’t often that one comes across a plant that is ‘more or less extinct’ in the UK according to Harrap’s Wildflowers, but here it is – a corncockle, in full bloom. Of course, it hasn’t just popped up by magic – someone has planted a packet of wildflower seeds and very pretty they are too, a mixture of poppies and cornflowers and scented mayflower. But it was the corncockle that caught my eye, because it has been one of humankind’s companions since the Iron Age, and is now gone.
Corncockle was one of the weeds that used to pop up when ever a field was sown. It’s an annual, so it relied on being harvested with the crop and re-sown with the seed saved from the previous year. It was so common that for centuries it was regarded as a pest, as it was said to make bread taste bitter. According to Roy Vickery’s Folk Flora, there was a whole ceremony in Herefordshire on Easter Day based around the separating of the corncockle seeds from the seed corn:
‘At Easter the rustics have a custom of corn-showing. Parties are made to pick out cockle from the wheat. Before they set out they take with them cake and cider, and, says my informant, a yard of toasted cheese. The first person who picks the first cockle from the wheat had the first kiss of the maid and the first slice of cake’.
Sadly, as humans got better at cleaning the seed that they saved, and more prone to use broad-based herbicides, so corncockle became rarer, with its decline starting to be noticed from the 1950’s onwards.
Nowadays, you might occasionally come across it in fields which have not become heavily industrialised, or which have been recently ploughed, turning up the seeds. However, you are more likely to see it, as I did, in a tiny urban meadow planted by someone who wants to see some wildflowers.
Corncockle is part of the Caryophylaceae or campion family, and is instantly recognisable because those long green sepals (the part of the flower that used to protect and encase the bud) protrude a long way beyond the petals. Those green ‘teeth’ gave it the delightful name of ‘Puck the Goblin’ in Sussex. As you might expect for a plant with such a long association with humans, it has a whole variety of vernacular names: in Dorset it was known as ‘little-and-pretty’, in Northumberland it was called ‘hard heads’, in Somerset it was ‘cockles’, and in Scotland ‘popille’. However, even though it has been here for such a long time, it is still not ‘native’, and is classed as an archaeophyte (a plant which arrived in the UK before 1500 CE).
There was a bit of a kerfuffle a few years ago when the TV programme Countryfile sent out packets of wild flower seeds which contained corncockle: the plant was described as ‘poisonous’ and in Royal Wootton Bassett a patch of seedlings planted by the local Brownies was fenced off to prevent a calamity. It is true that if you ate large quantities of the seeds (as in the aforementioned poisoned bread), you might suffer a stomach ache and vomiting, but that’s about as far as it goes. Plus, as the plant contains the soap-creating chemicals called saponins, it apparently tastes awful. The Daily Mail and Daily Express have a lot to answer for for their scaremongering about this plant and many others: our gardens are full to busting with poisonous plants, from yew and foxgloves to poppies and lilies, not to mention daffodil bulbs. Our children are much more likely to be mown down by a car than they are poisoned by a plant, especially if they are taught not to put random things in their mouths once they are old enough to understand. Harrumph!
In spite of being poisonous, corncockle was also used extensively in folk medicine – like many mildly toxic plants, it was useful as a treatment for intestinal worms (though no doubt you had to get the dosage right). It has been used to treat jaundice, oedema, constipation and gastritis, and the powdered seeds mixed with honey were used as an expectorant and a diuretic. Like so many wild plants it was both blessing and curse, depending on how it was used, and who was using it. In the Language of Flowers it was seen as representing gentility, innocent charm and daintiness, and was considered to be a good luck charm for a woman.
And finally, here’s something a bit different. The Moravian composer Leos Janacek (please forgive the absence of accents on some of the letters, my keyboard is not obliging me at the moment), had a deep passion for folk poetry and songs – he believed that
“the dance song should choke in sweat, in people’s vapour and steam, while the melancholy weeping of the bride should be reflected in wedding songs.”
He wrote a number of songs with plant names, and one of them was ‘corncockle’ (otherwise known as ‘into the woods’), which definitely sounds like a song that could be sung in a barn once the crop had been gathered in. . You can have a listen to it below, but you might want to hang on for the next track, too, called ‘Guelder Rose’, which is a deeply romantic tune. See what you think!