Lolium temulentum, typically known as darnel, poison darnel, darnel ryegrass or cockle, is an annual plant that forms part of the Poaceae family and part of the Lolium genus. The plant stem can grow up to one meter tall, with inflorescence in the ears and purple grain. It has a global distribution.
Darnel usually grows in the same production zones as wheat and was a serious weed of cultivation until modern sorting machinery enabled darnel seeds to be separated efficiently from seed wheat. The similarity between these two plants is so great that in some regions, darnel is referred to as "false wheat". It bears a close resemblance to wheat until the ear appears. The spikes of L. temulentum are more slender than those of wheat. The spikelets are oriented edgeways to the rachis and have only a single glume, while those of wheat are oriented with the flat side to the rachis and have two glumes. The wheat will also appear brown when ripe, whereas the darnel is black.
The French word for darnel is ivraie (from Latin ebriacus, intoxicated), which expresses the drunken nausea from eating the infected plant, which can be fatal. The French name echoes the scientific name, Latin temulentus "drunk."
The ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus stated in his De causis plantarum (8:7 §1) that wheat can transform (metaballein) into darnel (aira), since fields sown to wheat are often darnel when reaped.
Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
In ordering the St. Brice's Day massacre of all the Danes in England, Æthelred the Unready observed that "all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination."
Darnel is also mentioned as a weed in Shakespeare's King Lear, and is one of the many ingredients in Mithradate, which Mithridates VI is supposed to have used every day to render him immune to poisoning.
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