I looked again at a photo I put up on the bathroom wall –
It’s the corn cockle growing in a field of corn, as you might expect, a sight which used to be commonplace in this country, but before I came across it in Greece I’d only ever seen it in an urban ‘wildflower meadow’ although it’s not a flower that ever grew in meadows, but an annual weed of corn fields). When the first cereals were introduced to Europe from the middle east, from the ‘fertile crescent’ which is now mostly Iraqi desert, the corn cockle came along too. So technically it’s still an alien. Only plants which arrived ‘naturally’, without deliberate or accidental human agency are counted as natives, which is strange because it seems to place us outside nature.
The corn cockle may have been admired by some herbalists and gardeners in the 17th century, and its beauty has seemed to increase as it has vanished from our fields. But we can admire the wolf and the tiger when no longer threatened by them, and we have forgotten that the lovely corn cockle is poisonous and that its seeds contaminated corn for millennia. Maybe the Greek farmer was getting by on EU payments and no longer cared that much about the purity of his barley.
In the wild in Britain it is virtually extinct; its association with the corn was so close that when wiped out in the fields by herbicides (the practice of sewing wheat in the autumn helped too, since the corn cockle liked to germinate in spring) it never managed to take up anywhere else.
The corn flower was also growing in that field, both plants wearing their history in their name. The wild flowers were much thicker nearer the edges of the field, which was lucky for the photographer, otherwise the crop wouldn’t have been worth much at all….
When I looked at the photo on the bathroom wall I wondered again about gardens and design, about art and nature. The association of corn cockle and corn is about 6000 years old, and older in Greece than it would have been in this country since the new crops moved slowly westwards. The scene is entirely created by people, though they didn’t mean to. It’s artful design by accident, which is how many of the best gardens grow. And the poison? Good Christians would see it as an aspect of the Fall, the expulsion from Eden, further proof of our sinfulness. But since we’re not hungry, we can just enjoy it.
It’s easy to grow in the garden and seeds are easily available. It likes something to give it the support the corn used to offer. You can also get it in a wildflower mix. There is a white variety but that pink is so delicate, and the way it shades into white at the centre… and the dark lines which seem to be sketched onto the petals…