The delicate scalloped pink flowers of Agrostemma githago bloom from early to late summer above slender stems lined with fine, pale green leaves. The Corncockle is an attractive cornfield plant with large, pale purple-pink flowers that grow on single stalks in the summer.
The Corncockle is a 'cottage garden' plant of old, it is fast growing and makes a great wildflower meadow or cottage garden selection. Growing to a height of 60cm (24in) the graceful stems are ideal for cutting and last well in the vase.
Corncockle was introduced into Britain and Ireland as a contaminant of grain at least as early as the Iron Age. It is a plant that can tolerate a range of soil types. The changing pattern of agriculture where crops are sown in winter and harvested before the Corncockle would have a chance to flower and set seed, has had a dramatic impact on its numbers.
Although never common it suffered a dramatic decline at the beginning of the twentieth century with the development of improved seed cleaning techniques. It is now virtually extinct in the wild.
Corncockle can be established on most soils but does particularly well on free draining sandy loams. Plants do best when grown in full sun and provided with regular water but can withstand brief periods of drought. It can survive in poor soil with the minimum of attention and the flowers attract many insect pollinators including bees and butterflies.
Sowing: Sow direct in spring or in autumn.
Direct sow Agrostemma seeds outdoors where they are to grow from March to May.
Alternatively, sow outdoors in late summer. Corn Cockle plants will develop and overwinter to make strong plants for flowering the following May and June
Choose a position in full sun on well drained soil. Prepare the ground well and rake to a fine tilth.
Sow seed sparingly or they will choke out other seedlings. Sow at a depth of 12mm (½in) in drills spaced 30cm (12in) apart and cover the seed with its own depth of soil to exclude light.
If sowing more than one annual in the same bed, mark the sowing areas with a ring of sand and label.
The seedlings will appear in rows approx 6 to 8 weeks after planting and can be easily told from nearby weed seedlings. Thin the seedlings out so they are finally 15cm (6in) apart by early summer.
Water the ground regularly, especially during dry periods. Germination usually takes 7 to 14 days. When corn cockle seedlings are large enough to handle, they may be easily transplanted in clumps. Thin them out to 30cm (12in) apart.
Do not use a fertiliser since wildflowers prefer poor soils. In a garden situation, without long grasses to give support, you may wish to support the plant with stakes. Deadhead to prolong flowering and encourage new flower buds. Leave a few plants to die down and self seed. Others can be pulled up and composted.
Wildlife and Wildflower gardens, Cottage/Informal Gardens, Mixed Border. Container Planting, Cut Flower.
Girls in Hereford would take part in the task of 'cornshowing', weeding Corncockles from the wheat. She who pulled the biggest or most flowers got the biggest slice of cake at the festival afterwards.
The seed of Agrostemma githago contains githagin, a toxic saponin that causes diarrhoea. It is especially toxic to chickens. Care should be taken not to plant where they are likely to graze.
Once abundant in cornfields throughout Britain and Ireland, corncockle appear to have originated around the Mediterranean, it is now widely naturalised outside this region probably introduced as a contaminant of grain at least as early as the Iron Age.
It is considered an archaeophyte - a plant species which is non-native to a geographical region, but which was an introduced species in "ancient" times, rather than being a modern introduction. Those arriving after are called neophytes.
In Britain, archaeophytes are considered to be those species first introduced prior to 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World and the Columbian Exchange began.
The National Botanic Gardens of Ireland consider Agrostemma githago to be extinct within Ireland.
The genus name Agrostemma is from the Greek agros meaning 'field' and stemma meaning 'crown or garland'. The flowers used to be woven into harvest festival wreaths.
Its species name githago comes from its old English name Gith, meaning the name of a kind of plant with aromatic black seeds, and ago which is a Latin substantival suffix used to indicate 'a resemblance'. It is difficult to find an exact meaning but it has been suggested that the seeds resemble Nigella sativa, a plant with similar blackish caraway-like seeds which were known as Roman coriander.
The name Gith was changed to githago. Dodonseus wrote in 1583
"this floure is now called among the learned githago,"
Agrostemma is a member of the Caryophylaceae family - the campions and the pinks, hence the plant is often commonly known as the 'Corn-Campion' or the 'Corn-Pink'. Indeed, its nearest relatives are the white campion and the ragged robin.
Usually found in cornfields, the word corn was locally understood to denote the leading crop of a district. It meant "grain with the seed still in" (e.g. barleycorn) rather than a particular plant. Usually wheat in England, oats in Scotland and Ireland, while 'korn' refers to rye in parts of Germany.
The word cockle was at one time used in a general sense for weed, specifically to weeds of the cornfields.
There are five flowers that are associated with cornfields, there names all attain to their fondness for arable fields:
- Corn Poppy - Papaver rhoeas – Red
- Cornflower - Centaurea cyanus - Blue
- Corn Chamomile - Anthemis arvensis - White
- Corncockle - Agrostemma githago - Mauve
- Corn Marigold - Chrysanthemum seggetum – Yellow.
A Farmers Nightmare:
Agrostemma githago, the Corncockle is an essential component of every annual wild flower mix these days, thanks to its inherent beauty but perhaps also because it symbolises of the long-lost days before agricultural intensification and the advent of modern herbicides that wiped out so many cornfield weeds. But, back in the days when horses and hard manual labour were the essential tools for farming these pretty flowers were an unwelcome sight in a wheat field, if the seeds were milled they contaminated the flour.
George Sinclair, Gardener to the Duke of Bedford, writing in The Weeds of Agriculture published in the 1840s says:
'The miller's objection to these seeds is, that their black husks break so fine as to pass the boulters, and render the flour specky; also, because the seed is bulky, if there be much in the sample, it detracts considerably from the produce in flour: whatsoever is not wheat, must lower the value of that which should be all wheat.
It is the duty and interest of farmers to meet their customers the millers with clean samples; for the latter never forget to make use of every objection to beat down the price. "I would give you the other shilling if it were not for the cockle", is a common conclusion to one of these bargains: so a farmer having a hundred quarters of wheat grown in one field, loses five pounds by sowing a little cockle.’
In Sinclair's day the only solution for a farmer with cockle seed in his harvest was to resort to laborious sieving. ' A cockle sieve is therefore necessary, and will be found, for other purposes, very useful in a barn,' he advised.
- Additional Information
Seed Form Natural Seeds per gram 70 seeds per gram Family Caryophyllaceae Genus Agrostemma Species githago Synonym Lychnis githago Common Name Corncockle. Wildflower of Britain and Ireland Other Common Names Corn cockle, Corn campion, Crown-of-the-field. Other Language Names Ire. Cogal. F. Nielle des Bles Hardiness Hardy Annual Flowers Pale purple-pink flowers Natural Flower Time May to August Foliage Lance shaped pale green leaves. Height 60cm (24in) Spread 22cm (9in) Aspect Sun to Partial Shade Soil It can tolerate a range of soil types but prefers well drained soil. Time to Sow Sow direct in spring or in autumn. Germination 14 to 21 days