Grass blindness

Howard Thomas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (SciVal)
139 Downloads (Pure)


Lolium temulentum (darnel) is an almost-forgotten species that combines the characteristics of a weed, a pasture grass, a cereal, a medicinal herb, a hallucinogen, a religious symbol, and a literary trope. The way in which darnel has disappeared from common experience and memory, particularly in the developed world, has lessons to teach about how passive and active influences can conspire to render people blind to the cultural significance of historically important plants. Summary. Grasses, even those that feed the world, are easily overlooked. Lolium temulentum (darnel) is a grass species with a long history of human association; but, particularly in those countries with highly mechanised agriculture, it has physically and culturally faded from common experience. Archaeobotanical studies of Neolithic and early agricultural sites consistently find L. temulentum grains alongside remains of cereals. L. temulentum seeds are sources of potent psychotoxins, the products of endophytic fungi, and continued to enter the diet until modern farming methods and food hygiene regulations rendered the species effectively extinct in technologically advanced countries. L. temulentum, alone or in combination with other bioactive sources, was widely used in traditional medicines, often in ritualistic or religious contexts. Its status as a poisonous mimic weed of cereals made darnel a resonant literary trope for malignant subversion with which people would have been completely familiar in the pre-industrial era. The biblical parable about separating the wheat from the tares (tares was, possibly deliberately, an ambiguous alternative name for darnel) exerted profound religious and political force in the same period, and the Graeco-Roman belief that stress was able to transform wheat or barley into darnel persisted and justified some fundamental customs and laws of Judaeo-Christian culture. In the modern era, the not uncommon family or given name “Darnel,” or some variant thereof, faintly reflects the rich history of L. temulentum; though it is likely that most possessors of such names will have long been rendered blind to the plant connection.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)197-203
Number of pages7
JournalPlants, People, Planet
Issue number3
Early online date04 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jul 2019


  • agriculture
  • cereal
  • darnel
  • evolution
  • Lolium temulentum
  • neolithic
  • poison
  • religion
  • weed


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