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An Ergot kernel is the sclerotium formed instead of the grain, when a grain blossom is infected by the spore of the fungus Claviceps purpurea. Ergot is known to affect cereal crops and grasseses such as rye (most often), triticale, wheat and barley. It does not often affect oats. When the Ergot kernel drops to the ground it remains there dormant until proper conditions trigger its fruiting phase which is that of a Fungus. Its fruiting body is a tiny Mushroom; which in turn releases spores to continue its live cycle.

Ergot infection causes a reduction in the yield and quality of grain and hay produced, and if infected grain or hay is fed to livestock it causes a disease called Ergotism.

Ergot contains alkaloids of the ergoline group, which have a wide range of activities including effects on circulation and neurotransmitter function. Among those who studied ergot and its derivatives was Albert Hofmann whose experiments led to the discovery of LSD, a hallucinogenic ergot derivative that strongly interferes with the neurotransmitter serotonin.


The disease cycle of the ergot fungus was first described in the 1800s, but the connection with ergot and epidemics among people and animals was known several hundred years before that.

Human poisoning due to the consumption of rye bread made from ergot infected grain was common in Europe in the Middle Ages.

It has also been posited—though speculatively—that the Salem Witch Trials were initiated by young women who had consumed ergot-tainted rye.

The beverage consumed by participants in the ancient Greek mystery of Eleusinian mysteries might have been based on hallucinogens from ergot.

Some passages in the Bible have been interpreted by some to refer to ergot or ergotism, such as e.g. John 4:31-32 (one of the effects of ergot alkaloids is to suppress immediate hunger). Other passages report Jesus and his disciples walking in fields collecting heads of grain (Matthew 12:1, Mark 2:23, Luke 6:1). A possible interpretation of Mark 9:43 equates the reference to "hell fire" with St. Anthony's fire, although other interpretations considering the context of Mark 9:38-48 are more common, and the same is true for all the other cited passages.