Botanical.com Home Page
Fungi differ from flowering plants in theirchemical influence upon the air. They absorb oxygen and exhale carbonic acid, performing the same office in this respect as animals, which they most resemble in chemical composition. The odours they emit in decay are more like putrescent animal than vegetable matter. Some species, e.g., the Stinkhorns, emit a most intolerably offensive stench; others, on the contrary, are very agreeable to the smell and some 'toadstools' acquire in drying a fine aroma. They are quite as variable to the taste.
Numerically, Fungi rank next to flowering plants and in many portions of the globe far exceed them. In Great Britain, indeed, we have just over 5,000 species of Fungi, which number exceeds that of our flowering plants, ferns, mosses, lichens and algae all added together.
---Uses of Fungi---The uses of Fungi are various. Their office in the organized world is to check exuberance of growth, to facilitate decomposition, to regulate the balance of the component elements of the atmosphere, to promote fertility and to nourish myriads of the smaller members of the animal kingdom. As disease producers, both in plants and animals, not excluding man himself, they are responsible for much damage; nor do they leave alone the works of man. The subject of Mycology (Fungology) is of growing importance and is attracting the attention of scientific research, especially in America, as to the action of Fungi in human diseases. The fact is recognized in medical science that more than 20 per cent of tropical diseases, in the strict sense, are caused by Fungi and that the diseases due to Fungi are also not at all rare in temperate climates.
Certain of the species represent a danger to our existing food supply; the parasites on wheat and on potato plants have of recent years been the object of study by scientific agriculturists. The Imperial Bureau of Entomology, which grapples with injurious insects, has its counterpart in the Imperial Bureau of Mycology, which was inaugurated in 1920, and is equally effective in helping to control the fungus pests of our Colonies.
Yet all members of this great division of flowerless and chlorophyll-free plants are not harmful. Many of them perform useful and even beneficent functions, playing an important part in the welfare of humanity. Yeast, for instance, converts sugary solution into alcohol. Yeasts are everywhere and the various vintage wines are to some extent due to the particular yeast which is found amongst the grapes. Other Fungi (bacteria) help one to digest. As food plants, Fungi deserve more attention than they have received, at least in this country, although it has been estimated that we possess at least 200 edible forms. In ancient times the eating of Fungi was a common practice. The Romans especially favoured the Boleti, while Celsus makes allusion to the use of certain of the edible varieties. Throughout Europe and the East, Fungi are much more widely used as food than in Great Britain. In France, Germany, Italy and Japan the mushroom trade is officially recognized: in France, the prefecture de police has established a centre of inspection for mushrooms at the 'Halles' of Paris. Not only are all consignments of mushrooms entering this market inspected and passed before being put up for sale, but all amateur gatherers of Fungi may also have their spoil classified by the inspector free of charge, whereas a most useful addition to our food resources in this country is almost entirely neglected.
Formerly it was stated by enthusiastic fungus-eaters that Fungi contained more nitrogenous material than beef, but recent chemical analysis proves that the amount of nitrogenous matter that can be assimilated or used as food is actually but small and that Fungi practically contain no more fleshforming material than does a cabbage. Notwithstanding this, Fungi have their special flavours, often combined with a very pleasant aroma, and in this way serve a purpose, like condiments, rendering more palatable other essential foods and often aiding their digestion and assimilation.
A considerable number of Fungi have been employed in medicine, and although Ergot alone represents these plants in the Pharmacopoeia, yet the medicinal properties attributed by tradition to certain species of Fungi (as a writer in the Lancet pointed out, September 26, 1925) may possibly represent an untapped source of therapeutic value.
Up to the present time, no less than 64,000 species of Fungi have been described. They are divided into two great classes, the Sporifera, or spore-bearing, in which the spores are naked or exposed, and the Sporidifera, in which the spores are contained in bags or sacs called asci. The sporiferous division is by far the larger: in its family Hymenomycetes, which includes all the mushrooms and toadstools, the hymenium, or spore-bearing surface, is distributed over gills, tubes, pores or fissures. It is the most important group, both from the view of the toxicologist and the epicure, and comprises about 14,000 species.
The Agaricaceae order of gill-bearing Fungi comprises about 4,600 species. Some members are poisonous, as the Amanitas (Fly and Deadly Agarics), whereas others, as Agaricus, Cantharellus, etc., are among the best edible varieties.
The name Agaricum (as it stands in Pliny) was applied by Dioscorides to a peculiar drug supplied by the Polyporus of the Larch, which was obtained principally, if not solely, from Agraria, a region in Sarmatia and which was formerly of considerable repute and is still to be had from herbalists. Other Polypori were often substituted for that of the larch, and the name Agaricus became to a certain extent generic for Polyporus, but was applied by Linnaeus erroneously to the Toadstool class of Fungi bearing gills, and from that time adopted, though the earlier herbalists applied the name rightly to the corky tree Fungi, as Agaric of the Oak, etc.
---Discrimination between Edible and Poisonous Fungi----Of the 1,100 species of gill-bearing Fungi of the Mushroom type which are native to Great Britain, less than one hundred are known to be poisonous, though unfortunately these are mostly very virulent; and so it is essential, before attempting to enjoy the novelty of a dish of Fungi, to well study descriptions and figures of both edible and poisonous species, and not attempt to experiment on any unknown kind, as some of the really good and edible Fungi unfortunately superficially resemble extremely poisonous species.
There are no absolute general rules by which good or harmless Fungi can be distinguished, but there should be no difficulty in recognizing all the best kinds by means of ordinary care. In the Mushrooms and Toadstools, the gill-bearing Fungi, the colour of the gills and spores they contain are, for instance, of considerable importance and must be taken into account in determining a fungus. Hairs, scales, wool and gluten are found on the stem and cap of some species and present important data for identification. It must be noted, also, whether the stem is hollow or solid.
Many of the old statements as to the methods of distinguishing between edible and poisonous Fungi are quite valueless. It is quite an erroneous notion that only those Fungi are good to eat which grow in open places, and also that if the skin of the cap cannot be peeled off, as in the common Mushroom, a fungus is unfit for food, for many good species grow in woods (though comparatively few of these actually grow on trees), and in many excellent species which are constantly eaten there is no separable cuticle, whereas in numerous deadly species, it is as readily peeled off as in the Mushroom. Equally without foundation is the statement that if a silver spoon placed among Fungi that are cooking turns black, it is a proof that such Fungi are poisonous.
Good Fungi have usually a pleasant mushroomy odour, some have a smell of new meal, others a faint anise-like scent or no particular odour at all. Evil-smelling Fungi are always to be regarded with distrust. It is a suspicious sign of dangerous qualities, if a fungus on being cut or bruised quickly turns deep blue or greenish, also if it is noticed that a small piece broken from a freshly-gathered fungus when tasted leaves, instead of an agreeable, nutty flavour, a sharp tingling on the tongue, or is in any way bitter. All such should be avoided. It is as well, also, not to eat any Fungi which contain a milky juice which exudes freely on being cut, without carefully identifying the species first, as some of these, belonging to the genus Lactarius, are dangerous, though one of them, distinguished by a reddish juice, ranks as oneof the best.
The majority are acrid and dangerous, producing severe or even fatal gastric enteritis, due to the presence of an irritant resin. As, however, most species are used, when pickled, in considerable quantities almost indiscriminately by the Russians, it would seem that the dangerous properties are neutralized by the acid.
The Amanita genus of the large order Agaricaceae was formerly included in the genus Agaricus, but is now generally recognized to be quite distinct. It is remarkable for including two closely-allied species which are respectively one of the best of our edible species, Amanita rubescens, the Blusher Toadstool, and certainly our most poisonous species: A. phalloides, the Deadly Agaric or Death Cap.
Species of Amanita are usually of large size, grown on the ground and speedily decay after maturity. In the most highly evolved species, the entire plant when young is enclosed in a universal veil, which remains intact until the stem, cap and gills are completely differentiated, when by increase in length of the stem and the expansion of the cap, it is ruptured, leaving a more or less loose sheath round the base of the stem called the volva. The upper part of the universal veil remains on the surface of the cap, where by the gradual expansion of the same, it is broken up into irregular patches, which in most cases remain throughout the life of the fungus, hence one of the popular names Wart Caps. After the universal veil has been ruptured and the cap has commenced to expand, the secondary veil, or velum, may be seen as a firm, felted or interwoven membrane stretched between the upper part of the stem and the edge or margin of the cap. This secondary veil serves to protect the gills until the spores are formed, when by the gradual growth and straightening out of the edge of the cap it breaks away from the edge of the cap and remains as a ring or collar round the stem. After these phases of development have passed, the cap expands to its full size, the stem attains its full length, the spores mature and are dispersed and the entire fungus rapidly decays. No other Agarics have a complete volva and ring present. Although one species of Amanita and various other Fungi possessing a volva are edible, yet the safest plan for those not familiar to them is to avoid all species possessing this organ.
The Amanitas may also be distinguished from the mushrooms by their white lamellae or gills and the relatively thin edge of the cap. The poisonous Amanitas should not be very liable to be mistaken for the mushroom, since the top of the cap is usually coloured, from yellow through shades of orange to red or occasionally olive brown. A. phalloides, though generally of a pale primrose yellow, is, however, frequently white, in which case its other characters must be depended on for recognition. The species, the Death Cap, is the most fatally poisonous of all Fungi, though it has a pleasant taste and smell and looks perfectly harmless. Its volva is partly a ragged, edged, basal cup, partly in scales upon the top of the cap, one or the other position predominating in different cases. It has a well-developed, partly drooping, white veil. It is one of the commonest found in our woods, liking damp spots.
A. muscaria, the 'Fly Agaric,' is one of our most handsome toadstools. The cap is large (4 to 6 inches) and spreads out quite horizontally. It is a brilliant scarlet, studded with scattered white scales, fragments of the volva in which it was wrapped when young. The white stem is thick and provided with a prominent ring. The skin of the cap is viscid, so that d‚bris, such as pine-needles, stick to it. The gills underneath the cap are white, It is intensely poisonous and should be handled with great care. Poison extracted from it was once used for the destruction of flies and other insects - hence its name. Throughout the autumn, it may frequently be found, solitary and in groups, in birch and pine woods, in damp parts. Although justly considered injurious, it is used as a means of intoxication by the natives of Kamschatka. A. pantherina is used in Japan for like purposes.
This fungus is used in Homoeopathy as Agaricus or Aga. Hahnemann, naming it 'Bug Agaric,' described it as 'surmounted with a scarlet-coloured top with white excrescences and white leaflets.'
Hahnemann's and his students' proving was published in Stapf's Archives in 1830, with some toxic symptoms, and Aga was included in Hahnemann's second edition of his Chronic Diseases as one of the antipsorics, and present-day homoeeopaths assert that its powers over such chronic affections as chorea and chilblains proves its right to the title. C. T. Allen (Hom. Rec., March, 1913) has recorded the power of Aga to clear up certain cataracts. In this he used sometimes the ordinary preparations of Aga at other times Agaricin, or Agaric Acid.
A. Ceasarea (Caesar's Mushroom), largely consumed in Southern Europe, is closely allied to the poisonous species and shares their general appearance, and it is in seeking for this that most of the recorded fatal mistakes are made. Its stem, veil and gills are yellow, and it has a white volva in the form of a cup.
The nature of Amanita toxin from A. phalloides is not yet determined, but poisons of a similar nature appear to be widespread throughout the whole genus.
The symptoms produced by poisoning from eating A. phalloides are usually delayed for nearly twenty-four hours - they consist of great respiratory and circulatory depression; a cold heavy sweat breaks out, accompanied by severe headache and delirium often sets in. Jaundice may occur and a high temperature is frequent. Sometimes convulsions precede collapse. If Fly Agaric (A. muscaria) has been eaten, Muscarine poisoning is added to these symptoms, viz. profuse salivation, contracted pupils and slowing of pulse. Treatment consists in the administration of stimulants and the emptying of the alimentary canal by means of promptly-acting emetics and purges to prevent absorption. Atropine is to be freely used as an antidote.
The Polyporaceae order of Tube-bearing Fungi includes about 2,000 species, many of which are parasites on trees and destructive to timber. Some are edible, as Boletus edulis, whereas others are poisonous, as B. satanus.
The genus Polyporus, which has its pores so closely packed and united together that they are not easily separable, is a very large one, containing very varied forms, some succulent, others very hard and dense, form and colour being as varied as the texture. In most cases there is no stem, and when present it is often lateral.
P. officinalis was once a celebrated drug, known as White Agaric, or Larch Agaric, but it is now little used, though it is still to be obtained in the herbalists' shops. The term 'Agaric' is, of course, more properly applied to the Fungi of the genus Agaricus (see above), but in medicine it has long been applied to this species of fungus, P. officinalis (Fries), syn. B. laricis (Jacqui.), B. purgans (Person), which is found upon the old trunks of the European Larch, and Larix siberica (Ledebour) of Asia. The same species is found upon various coniferous trees in some of the western United States and in British Columbia. It is stemless, of various sizes, from that of the fist to that of a child's head or even larger, hard and spongy, externally brown or reddish, but as found in commerce, deprived of its outer coat, it consists of a light, white, spongy somewhat farinaceous mass, which though capable of being rubbed into powder upon a sieve, is not easily pulverized in the ordinary way, as it flattens under the pestle. The best is considered to be that from Siberia, but it is probably produced wherever the European Larch grows. It is collected in the autumn, chiefly in the larch forests of Archangel, then dried, deprived of its firm, upper rind, and exported to Hamburg.
The powdered drug has a faint odour and a sweetish taste, which is afterwards bitter. It yields to boiling alcohol not less than 50 per cent of a resinous extract, and when burnt yields not more than 2 per cent of a white ash, rich in phosphates. White Agaric owes its medicinal virtues to Agaric acid, which is also called Laricic and Agaricinic acid. It contains a small amount of soft resin and from 4 to 6 per cent of a fatty body. Sodium, Lithium and Bismuth Agaricinates have been prepared and introduced into medicine.
In moderate doses, Agaric acid is stated to have no effect upon the system except to paralyse the nerves of the sweat glands. Large doses act as an irritant to the stomach and intestines. The most important use of Agaric is in the treatment of sweats in wasting conditions such as phthisis. Its value in checking these profuse sweats has been confirmed by clinical experience. It is used inthe preparation of Tincture antiperiodica. When Agaric acid is applied to abraded surfaces or mucous membrane, it acts as a distinct counter-irritant.
An Agaric growing on the L. leptolepsis, used in Japan as a sacred medicine, under the name of Toboshi or Eburiko, has been found to contain Agaric acid.
Under the name of Agaricin are marketed preparations containing the active Agaric acid with larger or smaller amount of impurities. The dose of the pure principle is from 1/6 to 1/2 of a grain.
P. suaveolens (on willows), P. annosus (on birches), P. squamosus and other species have apparently a similar composition and similar properties. P. anthelminticus (Chu-tau of the Chinese) is used as a worm-dispeller. P. hirsutus, or 'Pugak,' and P. tinctorius yield dye-stuffs.
B. chirurgorum (SURGEON'S AGARIC, OAK AGARIC, PUNK, TOUCHWOOD) is the product of P. fomentarius, which is found upon the oak and beech trees of Europe and is a very different substance, its uses being mechanical, as tinder, and to staunch bleeding.
It is shaped somewhat like the horse's foot, with a diameter of from 6 to 10 inches. It is soft like velvet when young, but afterwards becomes hard and ligneous. It usually rests immediately upon the bark of the tree, without any supporting foot-stalk. On the upper surface, it is smooth, but marked with circular ridges of different colours, more or less brown or blackish. On the under surface, it is whitish or yellowish and full of small pores; internally, it is fibrous, tough and of a tawny brown colour. It is composed of short, tubular fibres, compactly arranged in layers, one of which is added every year.
It is collected in Central and Southern Europe, in August and September, chiefly from oak and beech, the best being from oak and prepared for use by removing the exterior rind and cutting the inner part into thin slices, which are washed first in weak alkali, then in water and then beaten with a hammer and worked until they become soft, pliable and easily torn by the fingers. In this state, it was formerly much used by surgeons for arresting haemorrhage, being applied with pressure. When it is steeped in a solution of nitre and afterwards dried, it constitutes 'Spunk,' 'punk' or tinder, the Amadou of the French, which occurs in flat pieces, of a consistence somewhat like that of very soft, rotten buckskin leather, of a brownishyellow colour, capable of absorbing liquids and inflammable by the slightest spark. Though as a styptic, it has now gone out of use, as tinder it is still an article of commerce and in Northern Europe has been much used by smokers, manufactured also into fusees, and used to be found here in tobacconists' shops under the name of Amadou or German tinder.
Among its constituents are extractive, resin (in very similar proportion), nitrogenous matter, also in small quantity, potassium chloride and calcium sulphate, and in its ashes are found iron and calcium and magnesium phosphate.
Similar but harder products are yielded by P. igniarius and P. marginatus, the former internally rust-brown, or dark cinnamonbrown, the latter yellowish, but P. fomentarius is considered to supply the best Amadou.
P. squamosus, one of the large fan-shaped species with a lateral stem, that grows mostly on decayed oak trees and becomes very tough, has often, when carefully dried and cut, been used as a razor strop, P. betulina, a stemless variety found on birch trees, serving a like purpose. When quite young, they have been recommended as esculents, but cannot be said to be excellent.
Many trees, especially beeches, often bear a number of overlapping sulphur-coloured fungus tufts of the consistency of mellow cheese. This is P. sulphureus. When wounded, quantities of yellow juice exude, which has been used for dyeing. When dry, the fungus becomes covered with beautiful crystals of oxalate of potash and during decomposition, it is luminous. It is absolutely unfit for food.
The STRIPED STUMP FLAP (Polystictus versicolor), one of our commonest and most beautiful Fungi, is also poisonous. It has no stalk, but grows out horizontally in a bracketlike way, layer upon layer, from trunks and tree-stumps and branches.
The TINDER BRACKET (Fomes fomentarius) is one of the large Fungi which cause much destruction in beech forests. This species causes the condition of timber known as white rot. After doing serious damage to the interior wood, a dark, hoof-shaped knob bursts through the bark and spreads horizontally into an inverted bracket, a foot across, with a white layer of spore-bearing tubes on its flat underside.
A much larger beech fungus is the GIANT POLYPORE (P. giganteus), the largest of our Bracket Fungi, which attacks the roots and base of the trunks, demoralizing the foundations, so that a huge beech that appears to have the solidity of a lighthouse, is snapped across in the first severe gale. The external manifestation of the fungus is made in autumn, when about twenty handsome, overlapping, fleshy fans, a foot across, and of a pale brown tint, with darker zones, make their appearance at the base of the trunk. The pallid underside of the flaps becomes dark at once when bruised. Its esculent qualities are appreciated on the Continent.
The JEW'S EAR (Hirneola auricula-Judae) has never been regarded here as an edible fungus, but in some parts of the world has that reputation. It is a somewhat gelatinous, flabby thin, expanded saucer-like fungus of a brownish colour when fresh, more or less folded, the fructifying surface uppermost, spread all over the inequalities of the fungus. It is smooth in the inside and veined or plaited, having some resemblance to the human ear; minutely velvety outside and greyish olive in colour. It is thin and elastic when moist, rigid when dry. It varies in size from 1 to 3 inches across and is attached to the tree-bark by a point at the back, rather on one side.
Our native species had at one time a reputation for medicinal qualities and was on that account included in most of the old Herbals; for its astringent properties it was considered a cure for sore throats, and because of its faculty of absorbing and holding water like a sponge, was also used as a medium for applying eye-water and for similar purposes, but its virtues are no longer recognized, nor is it here regarded as an article of food, though it is in all probability edible, but a very closely allied species, H. polytricha, not uncommon in tropical and sub-tropical countries, is esteemed as a dainty by the Chinese, under the name of Mu-esh, and is one of the species of Fungi cultivated in China, where it grows wild on the bark of the wild cherry, but is cultivated on rotten poles of the China oak. It is of great commercial importance, the quantity annually produced being very large. It is largely used by the Chinese in soups with farinaceous seeds and also as a medicine, being highly valued. The demand for it is so large that much is imported into China from the small Pacific islands and especially from New Zealand, and its collection and exportation to China adds to the revenue of this part of the British Empire.
A fungus growing on the Elder, Fungus sambuci, has been used as a local application in conjunctivitis: according to Steckel, it is capable of taking up from nine to twelve times its weight of water. (N.R. Pharm., XIII, 476, 1864.)
In the PUFF-BALLS (Lycoperdon, Bovista, etc.), belonging to the family Gasteromycetes, the hymenium remains completely enclosed in a continuous wall of peridium (Gr. perideo, I wrap round) until the spores are fully formed, when the peridium is ruptured and the spore-producing portion of the fungus is enabled to liberate its spores. In the Puffballs there is a specialized opening or mouth in the wall of the peridium through which the spores can escape into the air. There are also present, mixed with the dry mass of spores, certain very fine, elongated threads or hyphae. This mass of thread is termed the capillitium, and is considered to assist in the expulsion of the spores.
The Puff-balls are distinctive enough to be readily recognized. Although generally wantonly kicked to pieces when found, they can be used as food, being excellent eating when young. Two species of Bovista are very common in pastures, resembling small balls, white when young, which when ripe discharge their dust-like spores from openings in the top of the peridium. In the GIANT PUFF-BALL (L. gigantea), instead of there being a well-defined opening at the apex, the upper part of the wall breaks away in irregular patches. This giant Puff-ball is often not larger than a moderately-sized turnip, but the size is very variable, ranging from 4 inches to a foot in diameter, and specimens are said to have been met with a yard in diameter. It is usually found singly, or only two or three together, among grass in pastures, meadows, etc. It forms a globose, white mass, depressed a little at the top, often puckered at the base, the wall thick, somewhat downy, becoming smooth and fragile, breaking away above and leaving a wide, irregular opening. The base is spongy. The mass of spores is yellow, then olive, finally brownish olive, the interspersed threads or capillitium, dark coloured, long and intertwining.
Young Puff-balls in nearly all European countries but our own are used as food. Cut in slices, about 1/2 inch thick, the outer skin peeled off, and dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and fried in butter, with salt and pepper, they are quite palatable and digestible.
But it is only in the immature condition, whilst the interior remains fleshy and perfectly white, that they are edible, and on no account should any Puff-ball be cooked after the flesh has commenced discoloration, as poisonous properties are apt to be developed when old, even before decomposition sets in, so that it is essential they should be eaten only before the development of the spores. Gradually the flesh assumes a faint yellow tinge, deepening to canary yellow and in the dry, powdery condition to a brownish-olive colour. It is juicy and good about the end of July or in August, reaching the powdery state in September. The Giant Puff-ball is said to have been an article of diet among the North American Indians.
The smaller Puff-balls are not made use of, probably only on account of their small size, as they are not considered to be harmful, but the Giant Puff-balls, besides being edible, have been employed also in other ways.
The Puff-ball has a reputation in country districts for arresting haemorrhage. In former times, it was not unusual among cottagers to find the woolly interior mass, with its profusion of minute, snuff-coloured spores, considered an excellent remedy to apply for the staunching of blood in wounds, pieces of Puff-ball being kept year after year for use in case of emergency, being bound over the wound and allowed to remain until healed. The smoke from the burning plant has been employed for the purpose of stupefying bees in order that their honey may be collected without difficulty. It was formerly thought to contain a narcotic principle, but it has been determined that the stupefying effect of the smoke is due to the presence of carbon dioxide. If inhaled in large amount, it causes anaesthesia and excessive quantities cause death by respiratory failure. A 25 per cent tincture has been recommended in 1 drachm doses as a sedative in the treatment of nervous affections, but the drug is now considered of little importance in internal medicine. There is a tradition that in the days of flint and steel, housewives employed the dried substance of Puff-balls as tinder, Gerard remarking that 'In divers parts of England, where people dwell farre from neighbours, they carry them kindled with fire, which lasteth long.'
The spores prove very irritating to the nose and eyes if blown into the face when dry and powdery.
In the family Ascomycetes the spores are produced inside special cells or asci. The great majority of the species are minute and come under the definition of microscopic Fungi, and many of these are parasitic, and in many instances prove very destructive to cultivated plants: among such are the species causing Apple Scab, Potato Disease, American Gooseberry Mildew. Though none areknown to be distinctly poisonous, except the fungus called ERGOT and a few others, very few are edible, those best known in this country being the large, fleshy MORELS and the subterranean TRUFFLES.
Under the name of Lycoperdon Nuts, HART S TRUFFLE, or Deer Balls, a species closely allied to the Truffles, Elophomyces granulatus, had formerly some medicinal reputation, the drug being termed in old Herbals B. cervinus, though it has nothing to do with the modern genus Boletus, belonging to the tube-bearing order Polyporaceae. This old-fashioned drug was a few years ago offered in the London market, but it met with no sale. In the time of Dr. Pereira (middle of last century) it was stated by him that it was no longer used in medicine officially, but that he met with it in the stock of a London herbalist, and it was sold in Covent Garden as Lycoperdon nuts, so it could not long have gone out of use. It was formerly used by apothecaries for the preparation of Balsamus apoplecticus, and great power was ascribed to it in promoting parturition and the secretion of milk. Parkinson (Theatrum Botanicum, 1640) says the dose of it is 1 1/2 drachms in powder, taken in sweet wine. An analysis by Biltz is given by Pereira, from which it appears to contain a bitter substance in the coat; sugar, inuline, and various salts of lime and ammonia, and some proteid substances. An excellent illustration is given of the drug in Pereira's Materia Medica, Vol. II, Part I, 1850. According to Volg, Phamacognisie, 1892, it is still used in Central Europe in veterinary medicine, and Ludwig and Busse (1869) found it to contain mannite, mycose, pectin, mycogum, mycodextrin and mycoinulin. The fungus is found in woods under pine-trees from June to October, and it may usually be detected by the presence of orange-yellow branched threads or hyphae in the decayed leaf-mould where it occurs. It is brown and warty, about as large as a walnut, and purplish-brown internally.
Claviceps, or ERGOT, is one of the few species of Fungi that has sustained its reputation as a medicine, its value having been proved to be so considerable that it is official in all Pharmacopoeias. It is the winter resting stage of Claviceps purpurea, parasitic on wheat, rye and various other grasses. The stigmas of the flower of a grass becomes infected by the spores of the fungus brought by some insect visiting the flower. The spore germinates on the stigma and the mycelium grows down into the ovary, where it appropriates the food intended to nourish the grain or seed that should normally develop there. Instead of this, the fungus grows out as a long, black, slightly curved body, the sclerotium (a mass of cells compacted into a solid body), which bears minute conidia on its surface. These conidia are carried by insects to other grasses which in turn become infected. When the grass is ripe, the black sclerotia fall to the ground, where they remain in an unaltered condition until the following spring, when they give origin to one or more sub-globose ascophores, or heads supported on slender stems. Spores produced by these ascophores escape and are carried by wind, etc., on to the stigmas of grasses and cereals, and the course of development commences anew.
The firm dark-coloured sclerotium which when mature stands out conspicuously from the glumes of the ears of rye, constitutes the drug known as Ergot. It has attained its full development when the ears of rye have ripened, and is then collected by hand or separated from the grain, after it has been threshed, by specially designed machinery. After collection, it is carefully dried, and is then ready for use.
The drying of Ergot has to be carefully performed. Its quality is injuriously affected by too great drying, wherefore the official requirement that it be 'only moderately dried,' whereas incomplete drying subjects it to danger of mouldiness. Its oil is subject to rancidity, and insects are very liable to destroy it. The Pharmacopoeia therefore directs it to be preserved in a close vessel and a few drops of chloroform added from time to time, and that it be not used after being kept longer than a year. It is very prone to chemical change if kept in a damp place.
The chief commercial varieties of the drug are the Russian, Spanish and German; but Austrian, Swiss, Norwegian and Swedish Ergots also come into the market occasionally. The Spanish drug is generally largest and of the finest appearance, but it contains much starch and is less active than Russian Ergot. The drug is dark violet-black, tapering towards both ends, longitudinally furrowed, especially on the concave side, breaks with a short fracture and is whitish within. The odour and taste are characteristic and disagreeable.
---Constituents---According to the most recent investigations, Ergot owes its activity to specific complex alkaloids, Ergotoxine and Ergotamine; in good Ergots the alkaloidal content may be 0.02. A large number of other substances have been isolated from Ergot, the most important (quantitatively) is a fatty oil, which occurs to the extent of 30 to 35 per cent. A red colouring matter, Sclererythrin, is extracted by alcohol and by alkalis and serves for the recognition of Ergot in flour. The drug also contains mannitol, partly combined as a glucoside, and the sugar trehalose. About 3 per cent of ash is yielded.
---Uses---Ergot stimulates plain muscle, directly and indirectly throughout the body; its action on the uterus is like that on other plain muscle, and it is employed almost entirely to excite uterine contraction in the final stages of parturition. It is also employed, though rarely, to arrest internal haemorrhage, but its use should be restricted to cases of uterine haemorrhage, as it has been found to raise blood pressure in pulmonary and cerebral haemorrhage.
It has a strongly sedative action on the central nervous system and has proved a useful remedy in delirium tremens and spinal congestion and has been employed in certain forms of asthma, hysteria, amenorrhoea and in menstrual disorders. It increases the secretion of milk and is used to check the night-sweats of phthisis.
It is usually administered in the form of extract (Ergotin), liquid extract, infusion or ammoniated tincture.
Ergot is scheduled under Part I of the Poisons Act. Its long-continued use is dangerous, resulting sometimes in gangrene, and it should only be used in the hands of fully qualified practitioners.
Sometimes a fatal gangrenous disease, known as Ergotism, has spread over large districts on the Continent, as if it were a visitation of the plague, as the result of eating bread made with grain which has been contaminated by Ergot.
Ergot was in olden times written argot in French, and there is little doubt that this is the origin of our name, the old French signification being 'a cock's spur,' to which Ergot has a marked similarity of form.
The earliest reference to Ergot is found in Loneer's 1582 edition of Rhodion's Kreutterbuch, where the occurrence of Ergot on rye and its obstetric virtues are mentioned. Camerarius about the same time stated that it was a popular remedy for accelerating parturition, and in France and Italy it was in quite general use for the same purpose for many years before it was employed by professional physicians. A Dutch physician used it for obstetric work in 1747; but the first to give it extended trials and to bring it under the notice of the profession in France was Dr. J. B. Desgranges of Lyons, in 1777. But it was not until Dr. J. Stearns, of New York, published his Account of the 'Pulvis Parturiens (Secale cornutum),' a remedy for quickening childbirth in 1805 that the knowledge of its value became general among English-speaking practitioners, and it was not until 1836 that it appeared in the London Pharmacopoeia, as Ergota: Acinula Clavus (Fries).
In regard to the botanical history of Ergot, it was for a long time regarded merely as a malformation of the rye, due to luxuriance of sap or to insect bite. Its fungoid nature was first recognized by Baron Otto von Munchhausen in a work on Rural Economy, dated 1764. He placed it between the genera Clavaria and Lycoperdon. De Candolle definitely classified it as a fungus under the name of Sclerotium clavus, and Tulasne worked out its life-history and named it Claviceps purpurea.
Chemical investigations of Ergot go back to the eighteenth century, but the first of any importance was due to Vauquelin (Ann. Chim. Phys. 1816), and was doubtless suggested by the introduction of Ergot into scientific medicine.
Its purely vegetable origin was, however, still disputed, for Rennie, in the fourth edition (1837) of his New Supplement, after referring to De Candolle and Fries, adds that he has himself 'ascertained beyond doubt' that it is 'an exudation caused by the puncture of an insect - namely, Aphis graminis.'
Ergot can also be obtained from wheat and grasses, but that on Rye is alone official and is distinguished by its size, attaining a length often double that on other cereals, in which the sclerotium may not project at all.
© Copyright Protected 1995-2016 Botanical.com