Sunday, June 11, 2017

Questions from the Philadelphia Master Gardener Hort Line/Ergot or not

Those of us who volunteer for the Philadelphia Master Gardener Hort Line have researched and answered some interesting questions. We have learned about plants, pests, disease, and general gardening along the way. From time to time, we'd like to share some of the more unusual and interesting of those questions with you.

Ergot or Not?

Last summer, a woman sent an email inquiry to the Hort Line that included photos of a dark growth on ornamental grass. The grass was planted in the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust in Huntingdon Valley. She noticed the growth as she walked the acres of trails and saw that the growth was widespread. She was concerned that it was ergot, which could pose a serious public health threat.

What is ergot? Ergot is the name given to a group of fungi of the genus Claviceps. Its most common host is rye, although it can grow on many other types of grasses, including wheat. Because we consume so much wheat flour, contamination of wheat has the most serious and wide-spread implications for human health.

Ergot causes constriction of blood vessels and has been used medically to slow blood flow from wounds and childbirth.  Unfortunately, it can also have devastating effects if ingested in excess. Ergot can cause severe pain in arms and legs, a syndrome called St Anthony's Fire.

In high levels, ergot can cause hallucinations. LSD is derived from ergot and some historians think ergot poisoning may have played a role in the Salem witch trials or other significant outbreaks of hysteria.
And it's not only humans who are affected by ergot. Livestock can become ill, as well as wildlife and pets.

So it makes sense that there are strict regulations for the presence and levels of ergot in cereal grasses. Ergot-contaminated wheat can be cleaned, but it is costly and not always successful. In some cases the wheat must be destroyed.

The grasses in Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust were not meant for consumption, but if this was ergot, we needed to alert the folks in charge of the meadow to be sure the infection didn't spread.

My first step was to look at the submitted photos and compare them to online photos of ergot posted by the USDA and various US university extension services.

First, take a look at the submitted photos:

Now check out photos of ergot:

The good news: They don't look like the same growth, do they? The Pennypack growth is round and covered with ripples and convolutions, while the ergot is elongated and horn-shaped.

I wrote back to our questioner to say I thought it wasn't ergot, but that I wanted to be sure, I forwarded the question to Dr. Gary Bergstrom, a wheat pathologist at Cornell, who told us it was definitely a smut fungus and not ergot. I was happy to be able to report to our questioner that the growth was not a health threat. 

Another successful Hort Line investigation comes to an end!

If YOU have any questions and are not sure where to turn, ask the Hort Line! If we don't know the answer, we know someone who does!

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