Ergot Poisoning: Caused By Fungus Infested Grains

An inconspicuous fungus that can cause serious health complications, ergot is a fungus that grows on the seed heads of grasses and grains. The ergot spores infect the flowerhead of seeds on plants like rye or barely, destroying the ovary, and taking nutrients that were intended for the grass seed. The main species is known as Claviceps purpurea or ‘rye ergot fungus’, but there are a number of species within the genus.

If eaten, the fungi can cause a dreadful condition known as ergotism. Throughout farming history, it has caused innumerable deaths and physical disabilities, in humans and also livestock. Today, the condition is rare, but cases still occur in countries with fewer farming regulations.

Two grey/brown ergots emerging from a seed head.
Close up photo of ergots growing on spikelets of Spartina on muddy beach | Photo by Malcolm Storey on Wikimedia Commons

What Are The Active Compounds That Cause Ergotism?

Ergot contains a large amount of a toxic alkaloid known as ergoline. It can restrict blood flow which can have serious consequences within limbs.

Very cold winters, combined with a very wet spring and rain in early summer create the perfect condition for ergot fungi to thrive.

Ergot Poisoning Symptoms

Symptoms of ergotism can be very unpleasant. In severe cases convulsions are common, and gangrene sets in within the feet and hands due to lack of blood flow. Other symptoms include psychosis, vomiting, itching, hallucinations, and headaches.

A very old photo of two hands with gangrene in the fingertips.
An example of Gangrene, found in a medical book on a page that references the effects of Raynaud’s disease and ergot poisoning. | Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Notable Ergot Poisonings

Historians have found evidence of many ergotism epidemics throughout history. It still sadly occurs today in poorer nations, with one of the most recent cases in 2001 occurring in Ethiopia.

Cultural Symbolism of Ergot

Ergotism is often referred to as simply ‘ergot poisoning’, and historically as ‘Saint Anthony’s Fire’. During the middle ages, ergot poisoning was common among the poor, so a group of monks known as the Order of St. Anthony became specialized in treating people with ergotism.

The chemist, Albert Hofmann, synthesized LSD after studying the effects of ergotamine. LSD is created when diethylamine is combined with an active form of lysergic acid. Lysergic acid can either be produced naturally by the ergot fungus or chemically synthesized. It is believed that some cultures discovered this psychoactive effect, and ergot-infested grasses and grains were made into tinctures that were consumed for ritualistic purposes.

A photo showing the main sign and painted white building of the museum.
Dassel History Center and Ergot Museum, Dassel, Minnesota, USA | Photo by Myotus on Wikimedia Commons

What is the Medicinal Potential of Ergot?

Because of its ability to restrict blood flow, a number of drugs have been created to utilize this. Ergotamine and Dihydroergotamine have been used to treat migraines, and Ergonovine is used in obstetrics to control blood loss after pregnancy. The Dassel History Center and Ergot Museum in Minnesota in the US has a series of exhibits that explain how ergot went from “Blight to Blessing”, as the medicinal potential was discovered. The museum is the actual site where ergot was produced for pharmaceutical companies between the 1940s and ’70s.

What Does the Ergot Fungus Look Like?

Ergot is a very small fungi species. When a grass flowerhead becomes infected, the ergot takes over the ovary and begins to exude honeydew filled with spores which can infect other flowers by insect pollination. A dark body known as a ‘sclerotium’ forms in place of a seed head. It is then harvested with other seeds which may go on to produce flour for food items.

A labelled image of an infected seed and normal seed. The infected seed almost resembles popcorn with its swollen size, however, the normal seed remains slim and green.
A seed infected with ergot | Photo by Harry Rose on Wikimedia Commons

In a wet spring, tiny red fruiting bodies emerge on the sclerotium and release spores into the wind for the process to begin on other nearby grasses or cereal crops.

Old illustrations from a book showing various close ups of the fruiting bodies, the spores, and various cross sections of the fungi.
Illustrations showing various stages of ergot fungi growth, including the tiny, red, fruiting bodies | Image by Franz Eugen Köhler from Wikimedia Commons

Where Does Ergot Grow?

Ergot grows solely on grasses like rye and barley. While it can cause major issues for farmers and their crops, it also affects many wild grasses. It can be found throughout the world, wherever cereal crops are grown. But it needs specific conditions to successfully reproduce.


Today, ergot is managed by centuries worth of knowledge and modern prevention strategies. Crop rotation, choosing resistant crop varieties, inspections, grain color sorters, are all methods used to prevent ergot.

Featured Image | Photo by Lorie Shaull on Wikimedia Commons

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