The Cockle of Rebellion



Some of you may have noticed I have not been posting for the past 5 weeks or so. We have been to Australia to catch up with family and have a good holiday. It was an amazing trip and I will be writing about some of the things we saw and did over the coming weeks, possibly months.

It’s good to be back of course, especially as the silly season seems to still be in full swing. Take this story for example, which actually popped up shortly before I left, back in July.

Project promoted by BBC spreads poisonous wild flowers across Britain

It seems the BBC has been trying to poison the bodies of plucky Brits, not just their minds with their lefty propaganda – at least that’s the case if you believe the Mail and the Torygraph (which really should know better.) What’s going on?

The Mail reported a little story back in July that a National Trust warden had found corncockle growing on his patch in Sunderland – and was very pleased to see it “in the wild”.

The Big Lottery Fund has given Kew gardens £10M to encourage people to grow wild flowers. The project is called “Grow Wild“. Now whether this was a good use of gamblers money is moot, but that’s another matter.

Grow Wild thought it would be a good idea to send out seeds of the Corncockle, and encourage people to plant these attractive wild flowers in their gardens, and anywhere else appropriate.

Someone somewhere (a hack no doubt) discovered that – shock horror – corncockle seeds are poisonous. Indeed if you were foolish enough to eat a corncockle stem – perhaps mistaking it for a runner bean, with which it has absolutely no similarity, it would also give you a tummy ache.

The power of social media transformed this innocuous fact into a media-driven whirlwind of hysteria. These vicious and lethal wildflowers that have somehow been released into the wild and now being hunted down and eradicated as I write.

The Telegraph excels itself in this stupidity to the point that I wonder whether there is any dark ironic humour in their piece – for example

In Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire, council groundsmen have already been called in to eradicate a patch of corncockles planted in a park by well-meaning Girl Guides.”

Note this is Wootton Bassett – a town resonating culturally now as the sepulchre where the bodies of servicemen lost in wars of the Middle East are received back to the mother country.

The BBC has found itself entangled in this web of confusion and fear by merely reporting on progress with Grow Wild” in their insipid Countryfile strand. It’s a typical Countryfile piece in a way – reporting on a project which is cosy and friendly and all about the community doing something positive for nature, without addressing many of the real issues affecting it. How the Countryfile editors must be wondering where are those “countryside” stories that will upset nobody. Newflash – there aren’t any, get over it.

There is a more interesting story, in the shadows around this piece of silly season nonsense, and it’s about our relationship with plants and nature.

Corncockles are extinct in the wild in the UK – a rather ignominious state, given how common they were until relatively recently. They were originally introduced to Europe from their homelands in the Middle East, around 6000 years ago during the Neolithic. As a species that is pre-adapted to live with arable crops, they did very well in arable fields. They are not strictly climbers, but they are quite good at using a crop to grow up to, or even beyond the height of the crop canopy. They were a very well known arable weed for millennia, often found growing with another very common weed, Cornflower. Because their seeds are a similar size to crop seeds, they were a common (notorious) contaminant of crops, especially Rye, and were resown with the crop. Also, their seeds have a very long life in the seedbank, perhaps over a hundred years. So they can lie undisturbed until some cultivation happens and up they pop. Archaeological evidence indicates they arrived in Britain during the first millennium BC.

Eating Cockle-contaminated bread, especially Rye bread (or porridge), was an everyday occurrence from the Neolithic until the 19th century, as archaeological evidence attests. No doubt some did die from the toxins in the seed, though they those that survived benefitted from the presence of a natural ant-helminth githagenin, which kills intestinal parasites, another ubiquitous health problem of that time.

In Shakespeare’s time Corncockle was one of the most pernicious of weeds – known to such an extent he used it metaphorically: Coriolanus argues with the Senate over their desire to give the people a gift of free corn. Coriolanus likens the gift to a farmer encouraging Corncockle to grow instead of Corn.

In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst our senate

The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition

Which we ourselves have ploughed for, sow’d and scattered

By mingling them with us, the honour’d numbers;

Who lack’d not virtue, no, nor power

but that which they have given to beggars”

Coriolanus Act 3 scene 1

Could wearing a Corncockle actually have been used a symbol of rebellion in the 16th century?

19th century advances in agriculture – such as the threshing machine griddle, improved seed cleaning and Corncockle were no longer spread with corn seed. Their long decline to extinction in Britain had begun. WIth the introduction of mechanical and chemical weed killing techniques they rapidly declined, along with many others of our arable weed flora. They have been extinct in the wild for decades, although occasionally pop up after cultivation from that seed bank.

It’s also worth noting Corncockle and it’s arable weed familiars, Poppy and Cornflower, especially this year. The battlefields mimicked arable cultivation such that there were incredible displays of arable weeds during and after the First World War. This gives us our emblem of our lost generation the poppy, while in France it is the Cornflower. It could just as easily have been the Corncockle, which we now wear to signify remembrance.

Instead, we see the media vilify this flower, embody it with notions of poison and threat, forgetting or in ignorance of it’s history. For god’s sake Girl Guides in Wootton Bassett could be poisoned by it! It obviously has to go.

And so, not content with getting rid of this exotic traveller from the Middle East once, we have to do it twice, akin to driving a stake through the heart of the beheaded vampire.

This aversion to nature could be called ecophobia. It is everywhere – having come back from Australia, they have it real bad.

Immunologists now recognise that many allergies suffered are caused because part of our immune system is adapted to tackle intestinal parasites like worms. Now we have rid ourselves of these parasites, our immune system searches around for something similar to tackle, for example certain types of food, or parts of our own bodies.

It occurs to me that the Corncockle story  is something similar – we have an innate fear of some things in nature – for good reasons, such as not being eaten by a predator or bitten by a snake, or eating a poisonous plant. We have now rid ourselves of almost all of those primal risks from nature, but we still retain the psychological apparatus, so we have to invent other things to fill that space. The deadly Corncockle insinuating itself into our public and private spaces fits that bill perfectly. We have to consciously reject this visceral response and replace it with another more positive image of nature.

So let us celebrate our relationship with the Corncockle, sow Corncockles whereever they may prosper, re-wild our stale sterile public spaces with colour and a little bit of danger.

Let Girl Guides across the country sow Corncockles where they may go, and wear your Cockle of Rebellion with pride.

Photo by H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons








About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in arable weeds, ecophobia and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Cockle of Rebellion

  1. David Dunlop says: Oh dear! I guess this means poor Corncockle be off to the knacker’s yard now, unless there’s a name change. Ergot, maybe?

  2. Pingback: The Corncockle Kerfuffle – the Archaeobotanical Evidence | theplantremains

  3. Pingback: Guest blog - Disturbing for Nature by Miles King - Mark AveryMark Avery

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.