Plant diseases

Ergot (Claviceps purpurea)

Today we are going to talk about a well-known parasitic fungus that can affect a wide variety of cereals and other herbs. It’s about ergot. Its scientific name is Claviceps purpurea and it is a parasitic fungus whose most common host is rye. Infestations with this fungus often reduce the quality and quantity of grain and hay. Also, if crops are used to feed livestock and are infested, it can cause a disease called ergotism.

In this article we are going to tell you about the characteristics and medicinal properties of ergot.

Main features

Ergot is deposited on the ground and can remain dormant until conditions are conducive to growth. When it began to grow it is known as the fruitful phase. It can be identified because, during this phase, it develops a small mushroom that releases fungal spores. These spores are barely a micron thick. The eradication of this fungus has to be rapid since it can seriously affect crops, especially if it is intended to serve as food for livestock.

This disease was first described in the 1800s. During the Middle Ages there were poisonings due to the consumption of grain infested with this fungus. It was very common to affect humans in Europe from eating infested grain.

To be able to identify it, the ergot of rye can be seen with the naked eye as an outgrowth that is attached to the cereal grains. It is usually purple to black in color and is only 1 to 4 centimeters long and about 5 millimeters wide. Among the main components of ergot of rye we have the alkaloid called ergotamine (hence the disease produced by the ingestion of infested meat from cattle is known as ergotism). Other important components are other alkaloids such as ergometrine, ergocristrine and ergocriptine.

Negative effects of ergot

This fungus that had a great incidence in poor people who ate contaminated grains. In ancient times this contaminated grain was responsible for ergotism. This disease can affect both humans, animals that eat the plant infected with the fungus. To recognize this disease, it is known that the main symptom is the loss of limbs in the feet and in the hands, ears, nose, etc. This limb loss occurs because blood circulation worsens to enormous levels in such a way that the blood cannot reach all the extremes of the body.

Those responsible for this poor circulation are the alkaloids that we have mentioned above. These to the corpses cause a narrowing of the blood vessels to such an extent that it hinders blood circulation in a normal way. When the blood supply is lacking in any part of our body, what is known as gangrene originates. Members with gangrene must be amputated so that the infection does not spread to the rest of the body. Another of the symptoms by which they recognized ergotism is due to the hallucinations produced by its components. In the Middle Ages it was believed that they were simple hallucinations without any problem, but later, this symptom was thoroughly studied and it was known that patients who were infected went crazy.

Ergot poisoning

The poisonings caused by ergot of rye are quite well known. The effects of alkaloids have vasoconstrictive properties that are those that produce gangrene in the extremities. To this effect must be added the toxicity that this fungus has on the central nervous system. The way they affect the nervous system can be seen manifesting in seizures, hallucinations and depressive states.

If a pregnant woman becomes infected by eating grain contaminated by this fungus, it can cause an abortion or premature delivery. The abortifacient effect of ergot was already known in the Middle Ages and was used on purpose by healers and midwives for this practice. The fatal dose is close to 1 gram. Today this type of intoxication is almost impossible to see.

In the case of poisoning, emergency treatment is administered activated charcoal and heparin associated with a vasodilator is administered. This vasodilator is the one that does the opposite effect of ergot that increases the pressure in the blood vessels. The most immediate effects of the alkaloids derived from ergotamine are vomiting to eliminate the poison effectively. You can try to induce vomiting to eliminate the poison as soon as possible.

If the affected person suffers from seizures it is recommended to use diazepam. It should also be noted that symptoms of toxicity can be found even with recommended doses of ergotamine and other rye alkaloids. This is because they can be co-administered with an antibiotic from the macrolide family. This administration is totally contraindicated.

Medicinal properties

Despite the fact that this fungus has a high degree of toxicity, it is used in the pharmaceutical industry for the production of different drugs. For example, it has been used for the production of medicines to treat migraine headaches, stop bleeding after childbirth or for Parkinson’s disease. The traditional use of this mushroom is quite old.

As we have mentioned before, it was also used inappropriately as an abortifacient and to stop women from giving birth. It has also been used in the wrong common hallucinogenic way. This practice has led many people to serious health problems.

Among the main symptoms that we find when ingesting ergot are the following:

  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Contractions
  • Hypotension
  • Cardiorespiratory arrest

Therefore, we must be aware and know if we have ingested ergot, since a dose of one gram can be fatal. As you can see, this is something to be careful about. I hope that with this information you can learn more about the action and symptoms of ergot.

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