Gramineae: Poaceae (Grass Family); Hodeae Tribe
Forms and Subspecies
One variety has been found throughout Egypt since ancient times, i.e., for at least five thousand years (Germer 1985, 215*): Lolium temulentum var. macrochaeton A. Br.
Lolium maximum Willd.
Bearded darnel, borrachera (Canary Islands, “inebriator”), cizaña, darnel, darnel grass, delirium grass, dolik (Dutch), dower, drunken lolium, hammerl (Austria), hierba loca (Spanish, “crazy herb”), huedhuedcachu (Mapuche, “crazy plant” or “plant that makes crazy”), ivraie (“inebriating”), ivraie enivrante (French), jamdar (Persian), jollo, joyo, loglio ubriacante (Italian), lolch, ollo, rauschgras, schwindelhaber, schwindelhafer, schwindelweizen, tares, taumellolch, tobgerste, tollkorn, tollkraut (Bahamas)
Bearded darnel has been found in Stone Age deposits in Europe and was well known among the ancient Egyptians (Christiansen and Hancke 1993, 118*). It may even have been mentioned in the Bible, which speaks of separating the “wheat from the chaff,” an indication that the wheat fields may have been infested with Lolium (Germer 1985, 215).
Because it produces an inebriating cereal grain, bearded darnel may have been associated with the cult of the goddess Demeter (Ruck 1995, 141*; cf. kykeon). On the Canary Islands, the plant apparently was used as the source of an inebriant (Daria et al. 1986, 188). The Gauls are also said to have taken advantage of the “staggering effect” of the plant and used it to brew beer. During the Middle Ages, bearded darnel frequently found its way into cereal grain plantings and was consequently harvested and baked into bread, which induced psychoactive effects when ingested and caused staggering (hence the many folk names referring to this effect). Incidents of mass cases of toxic symptoms—similar to those resulting from ergot (Claviceps purpurea)—are said to have resulted (Roth et al. 1994, 465*). Bearded darnel also may have been one of the components of the witches’ ointments.
The grass may have originated in the Near East; it has been found in association with humans since the early Egyptian period (Aichele and Hofmann 1991, 142*). It is especially common in central Europe, where it prefers grain fields, roadsides, and wastelands.
Lolium temulentum is easily propagated from seed, which normally needs only to be broadcast onto the ground. Bearded darnel prefers calciferous soils and grows well between oats and barley.
This annual grass, which is green to bluish green in color, has stiff, upright, coarse stalks that can attain a height of up to 75 cm (more rarely 100 cm). The stalks are often branched at the base but do not exhibit any leaf shoots. The ears can be as long as 20 cm and possess long awns (beards). The glumes are two to four times longer than the lemmas. The flowering period is from June to August. The brown fruits are elongated.
It was once thought that the bearded darnel was infested with ergot (Claviceps purpurea) (Hooper 1937, 137*). But the grass is actually infected by one or more fungi: Endoconidium temulentum Prillieux et Delacroix, Chaetonium kunzeanum Zopf, and/or Gibberella subinetii (Mont.) Saccardo (Blohm 1962, 11*; Christiansen and Hancke 1993, 118*). As many as 80% of bearded darnel seeds may be infected with a fungus (Germer 1982, 215*):
When the seeds germinate, the fungus grows up through the entire plant to the new grains and is thereby transmitted to the next generation. This kind of long-lasting relationship between host plant and fungus is known as a cyclic symbiosis. As far as we are aware, it is only the fungus which receives an advantage from this coexistence. The fungus does not harm the grass, but the grass does not benefit from it. (Christiansen and Hancke 1993, 118*)
“The darnel, bearded darnel (Lolium temulentum), is known everywhere for its harmfulness. In addition to its sedative effects, it is also said to make one stupid. But it has a favorable effect upon fruit trees, for when one sees that their fruits fall off while still unripe, they need only be surrounded by a wreath of darnel, whereupon the fruit will be preserved until it is ripe.”
K. RITTER VON PERGER
DEUTSCHE PflANZENSAGEN [GERMAN PLANT LEGENDS] (1864, 97*)
The species Lolium multiflorum is a close relative of bearded darnel.
A ripe spike of bearded darnel (Lolium temulentum).
“Home brewers often used cheap surrogates for their top-fermenting beer instead of the expensive hops; the old beer brewers of Gotha, for example, used ‘dower,’ the seeds of the annual spike grass ‘Taumel-Lolch’ (Lolium temulentum L.), which caused one to ‘dower,’ or stagger after drinking such a beer, thus feigning the effects of a potent drink. It was easy to collect this weed in the summer grain.”
IM THÜRINGER KRÄUTERGARTEN [IN THE THURINGIAN HERB GARDEN] (1982, 180*)
Bearded darnel is easily confused with Italian ray grass (Lolium multiflorum Lamk. [syn. Lolium italicum A. Br.]), which is very similar in appearance (Aichele and Hofmann 1991, 142*). Bearded darnel also resembles the common ray or rye grass (Lolium perenne L.), which contains loliolide (cf. Salvia divinorum).
—Spikes (fructus lolii temulenti, lolii temulenti fructus, bearded darnel fruits, seeds, darnel fruits)
Preparation and Dosage
The seeds of bearded darnel were used as an ingredient in witches’ ointments, as a fermenting agent for producing fermented or distilled drinks (alcohol), and as an additive to beer (Europe) or chicha (Peru): “The seed was also sometimes purposely mixed into the grain in order to make the beer more inebriating” (Aichele and Hofmann 1991, 142*).
In an animal (mice) experiment with the primary active constituent, loline (= temuline), dosages as high as 200 mg/kg injected intraperitoneally did not produce any toxic effects (Ott 1993, 159f.*).
It has been rumored that a secretive mystery cult in Lebanon macerates the seeds of bearded darnel in water. They drink the extract to induce a state of religious ecstasy (Ott 1993, 155*).
“The bearded darnel is little used in the healing arts; only in homeopathy is it used for rheumatic and gout ailments, stomachaches, dizziness, and trembling limbs” (Wirth in Bauereiss 1995, 144*). The plant was or is used in folk medicine as an abortifacient (Blohm 1962, 11*). In the Canary Islands, the seeds were used in folk medicine as a tranquilizer (Ott 1993, 155*).
The spikes contain up to 0.06% of the pyridine base temuline (Roth et al. 1994, 465*). Two as yet unidentified alkaloids are also present. Perloline has been detected in the stalks (Dannhardt and Steindl 1985). The narcotic or inebriating alkaloid tenuline, also known as loliin (= loline), is a metabolic product of the parasitic rust fungus Endoconidium temulentum, which almost always grows on the grains (Christiansen and Hancke 1993, 118*).
Bearded darnel is said to induce profound perceptual changes (Blohm 1962, 11*): “Drunkenness, staggering, headaches, clouding of the thought process, disturbances of vision, violent vomiting, colic, sleepiness or sleeping sickness, death resulting from respiratory paralysis. Lethal outcomes are rare, but the central effects can persist for days” (Roth et al. 1994, 465*).
“The constituent temuline induces disturbances in the coordination of movement, motor paralysis, and can provoke a spontaneous respiratory paralysis. Its atropine-like effects are manifested as a dilation of the pupils” (Wirth in Bauereiss 1995, 143*).
When darnel seeds are mixed into cereal grains, the bread or beer that is made from them can make one “crazy” (Mösbach 1992, 64*).
The characteristic “staggering” effects can also be induced by Chaerophyllum temulentum L. (Apiaceae), which contains a volatile alkaloid (chaerophylline?) (Roth et al 1994, 210*).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Lolium temulentum is listed as an endangered plant (Roth et al. 1994, 465*). Apart from this, there are no regulations concerning the plant.
The mother tincture (= TM), Lolium temulentum, can be obtained in German pharmacies.
The inebriating properties of bearded darnel have been known since antiquity. This botanically correct illustration is from the early modern period. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)
See also the entry for Claviceps purpurea.
Dannhardt, G., and L. Steindl. 1985. Alkaloids of Lolium temulentum: Isolation, identification and pharmacological activity. Planta Medica 51:212–14.
Darias, V., L. Bravo, E. Barquin, D. Martin Herrera, and C. Fraile. 1986. Contribution to the ethnopharmacological study of the Canary Islands. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 15 (2): 169–93.
Katz, I. 1949. Contribution à l’Étude de l’Ivraie Envivrante (Lolium temulentum L.). Thesis, École Polytechnique Fédérale, Zurich.