Grit Blogs > A Long Time Coming

LSD, Ergot and Rye, Oh My!

A photo of Shannon SaiaSo, we’re sitting on the sofa the other night, and my husband says, “Oh, so and so told me that you have to be careful with rye not to let it mold. He said that if you let it mold then it becomes poisonous.”

“What?”

“He said that mold on rye has an LSD-like effect if you eat it.”

“WHAT?!”

“So-and-so #2 has heard about it too.”

Well, I hadn’t heard about it. I am SO not eating the rye. Why is it that it seems like there is nothing you can do these days that isn’t going to rearrange or damage you, that is, if it doesn’t kill you off entirely???

I suggested that we just let it do its job as a groundcover for the winter, pull it up in the spring, and be done with it, but my husband resisted. We both want to get the most out of the land we have, and if we’re going to grow something we prefer that it be something that we can harvest or eat.

“What about green potatoes?” he countered. “Aren’t they poisonous? You didn’t stop growing potatoes when you learned about that.”

“But it’s easy to see if the potatoes are green. I just threw the green ones away.”

“Well it’s easy to see the mold on the rye too. If we have any moldy rye we just won’t eat it.”

“Can you see the mold on the rye?”

It would appear that some research is in order.

In fact, the mold on rye issue is not the first thing that I have had to research regarding the safety of the food that I am growing, and it’s not my first garden safety panic. This year I learned about solanine in potatoes, the chemical that’s present in them when they are exposed to the sun during their development. When I saw similar greening on a sweet potato, I was concerned, but apparently sweet potatoes don’t produce solanine. And I read something about how parsnips don’t start out poisonous (not during their first growing season or even if left in ground and over-wintered), but apparently at some point in their life cycle they become poisonous. This is too much risk for me. What if I don’t get it right? So we didn’t grow parsnips.

In fact, it’s crossed my mind to wonder about everything that I’ve grown this year that I have never grown before – could this be poisonous? Could some bizarre, hitherto unheard of cross-pollination have occurred that might have made this variety of kale that I have never seen in my life before take me out?

Oh yeah. I am super paranoid about these things.

But I’m learning.

It may seem like this is trying to be an informative post about one aspect of growing rye, and it is, but it’s also something else. It’s also a segue to a philosophical revelation – that we get a false sense of security in the modern world that the things that we eat are not only safe but that they’re supposed to be, that safety is a quality that is somehow inherent in the world, and that we are somehow entitled to it.

At least it used to seem that way. In these days of melamine in dog food and baby formula, toxic red paint on kid’s toys, off-gassing Chinese drywall and the barrage of chemicals assaulting our food under the guise of being “ingredients,” the innocent faith of my youth on this issue has pretty much been lost.

Safety isn’t inherent in the world and we are not automatically entitled to it. It’s taken who knows how many thousands of years for human beings to determine and catalog and pass along information about what can be eaten safely and what can’t. When it comes to plucking a food right off the vine, or out of the ground, or from a tree, most of this knowledge has been lost to most of us for quite some time. But it is recoverable. And anyway, I wouldn’t touch 90 percent of what’s available in a supermarket these days with a ten foot pole, because it’s not harmless either. What’s inherent in nature is danger; and death is inherent in life. We each only get so much time before we’re sickened by solanine (if we eat almost five POUNDS of green potatoes at one sitting – an unlikely occurrence) or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (after how many years of consumption – twenty? Thirty? Forty?). All we can do is to learn as much about ourselves and the world around us and how to use it as we can, and then try to make smart choices, something that it’s getting harder and harder to do these days, since we’re surrounded by BAD choices pretty much all the time.

My choice is this: As much as possible I want to produce and grow my own food. And as I said a few posts back, the biggest garden pest is ignorance, so that’s the one I’m going to fight. Here are the facts on the rye:

First of all – yes you can see the mold. It looks like black kernals where golden kernels should be.

Second, ergot is more common on rye than on other grains, but does appear on other grains – wheat, sorghum, millet, etc. So this is something to look into with any grain that we might consider planting.

It turns out that rye has an amazing history. I believe that the information passed on to us about the hallucinogenic properties of mold on rye are because it was from rye mold that LSD was first produced by Albert Hoffman in 1948, who was at the time looking for antibiotic substances in fungi. But that does not even begin to be the whole of the story.

Ergot of Rye is a plant disease that is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. The proportion of the compounds produced varies within the species, which means that you might live through consuming it – or you might not. There are two types of ergot poisoning, convulsive and gangrenous. With convulsive ergotism, the victim suffers from nervous dysfunction, characterized by writhing, twisting and contorting their body in pain, trembling and shaking, and the fixed twisting of the neck. There can also be muscle spasms, confusions, delusions and hallucinations. Gangrenous ergotism causes gangrene by constricting the blood vessels leading to the extremities, where infections occur, accompanied by burning pain. Once gangrene has set in, the affected body part becomes mummified, and will eventually fall off.

Nasty, huh?

Rye wasn’t cultivated for food until sometime in the early Middle Ages. The first major outbreak of gangrenous ergotism was documented in 857 A.D. in the Rhine Valley – though at the time they didn’t know what it was, or what caused it. Numerous epidemics followed, because of the continual consumption of rye – rye being the staple crop of the poor. It wasn’t until 1670 that a French physician, Dr. Thuillier, asserted that the condition was not in fact an infectious disease, but was due to the consumption of rye infected with ergot. And in 1853, Louis Tulasne, an early mycologist and illustrator, worked out the life cycle for the Ergot of Rye. It is theorized that Ergot of Rye has played a role in the outcomes of wars, in the effects of the bubonic plague, and most fantastically, in the persecution of people for practicing “witchcraft” (i.e., the Salem Witch Trials). Even in the 20th century there have been outbreaks of ergotism, with the last known example occurring in August 1951 in Pont-St. Esprit, in Provence, France.

Apparently ergotism is now rare, and there is a floatation method for cleaning rye seeds. The ergot stage is buoyant and any seeds infected with the fungus will float to the top and can be skimmed off. Additionally, to minimize the amount of ergot formation, after the rye has been harvested, the field is deeply plowed to prevent the germination of the ergot, and a crop is then planted which is not susceptible to ergot, which will break the cycle of any ergot that may have survived the previous year’s plowing. There is no variety of Rye that is resistant to ergot.

Rye bread, anyone?

So, now that I am armed with some actual information, I still think that this potential issue is probably more than I want to deal with. My husband is disappointed. He was looking forward to making our own rye bread. To him it’s not a problem. Our new-found awareness alone is enough. If we can see it – and it seems that we can – then we don’t use the black grains. To me, it’s not so clear cut. To what extent is that ergot there before it becomes visually obvious? I’m not sure. How much do you have to consume before it actually is an issue? It seems that part of the thing about the outbreaks in the middle ages was that people ate it all the time. They also ate it completely indiscriminately, because they didn’t know that there was anything wrong with it. Surely that must make a difference. And I don’t have any way to use potassium chloride at home to float the infected grains. And if I have to float them, rather than just picking them off because I can see that they’re infected, then I may be right in my proposition that just seeing the infection may not be enough. I haven’t been able to find any advice on how to grow rye at home, and how to ensure that you don’t accidentally ingest any ergot, plus since it will live in the soil and return the following season if I don’t plow deeply enough and rotate my crops properly, at this point, growing rye to eat seems, well, risky – and I am risk averse.

Totally.

So we’re talking about it. I’ve known and been friends with my husband since I was thirteen years old, so he is well-acquainted with my anxious, paranoid, freaked-out side. He’s being gentle. But I’m pretty sure at this point that the rye is going to be relegated to the role of cover crop/green manure and that it’s getting plowed in in the early spring, no harm no foul, to make way for something that I can grow in total confidence. I have some quinoa seeds I want to try this spring, so you can bet I’ll be researching that.

Stay tuned.

graham anderson
1/11/2012 3:57:49 PM

The stage of ergot which contains alkaloids is the sclerotium, a purple structure that replaces kernels on a head of grain. If you look at your heads and don't see any black or dark purple grains, then you don't have ergot. Grains cannot be partly-infected with ergot, and sprouted or molded rye grains will not develop poisonous alkaloids. Happy growing!


vickie
12/2/2009 11:16:48 AM

Shannon, It seems as though you really did your research. I guess we do need to watch everything we eat - even if we grow it ourselves. I do feel much better though eating my garden produce or locally grown. Like you said it will be a great green manure and will help your garden grow next season. vickie