corn-cockle defined in 1913 yearcorn-cockle - Corn-cockle (Lychnis githago);
corn-cockle - "Allans! Allans! - Sow'd cockle, reap'd no corn."
Love's Labour's Lost.
The Corn-Cockle takes its place in the ranks of the corn. Its stiff, bare stems, covered with close, rough hairs, merge with the corn-stalks, and it is only the little magenta islands of the flowers amid the corn-heads that catch the eye. In the attempt to break through the harsh stem and gather the flowers the whole plant is apt to come up bodily, and then one can examine it at one's leisure - an ugly plant, barring its charming flowers, but with a certain strength and robust vitality about it that command one's respect.
Spring by spring it renews itself from seed - little rough seeds stored with a packet of reserve material round which the embryo curls like a horseshoe. The germinating plant quickly absorbs this reserve through its seed-leaves, and then withdraws them from the now otherwise empty husk. They are still very tender and the nights yet chilly, so though these twin leaves spread apart by day they draw together for mutual warmth at night.
By early July days it is amazing how much the plant has done; its root is as thick as one's finger, and as hard as wood. A single stem rises from it. Two or three inches up are a pair of leaves - mean, narrow slips, several inches long and half an inch wide - with prominent midrib along their backs. (Broad-bladed leaves would be quite out of place and useless, too, amid the corn-stalks.) They have no stalks, and in the pocket that each forms with the main stem a branch arises. Each branch again gives off a pair of similar, though smaller, leaves, and again in their pockets a branch is formed; thus we have a plant continually forking, with a few ugly pairs of leaves which get more and more negligible.
On straight, very long stalks the flowers arise - the plant's one beauty. A peculiar spikiness, due to the fashioning of the sepals, is the outstanding feature of each. For the sepals, commencing as a cup, say half an inch high, covered with long, silky hairs all pointing upwards, and supported by ten strong ribs, are continued above the cup as five long, green spikes which stretch far beyond even the petal disk, and hence a country name for the plant is "Ray." Slit a flower down and examine it. On the inner side of the sepal cup are ten remarkable white ridges corresponding to the spaces between the ribs on the outer side. This well-braced cup is essential to hold the petals together, for these have no power of supporting themselves, since the lower part, or limb, of each is of the thinnest and most fragile description, though above it spreads into a substantial enough looking object. Now look down on another flower and view it as it would appear to a hovering insect, and we see a five-rayed star with a large, five-lobed, purple disk shading in the centre to white; on the disk are mysterious lines pointing down to a deep, green tunnel, from whose depths rises in the very centre a purple spot, the clustered tops of five columns. The slit flower shows that round the walls of the petal-tunnel stand ten stamens, while at the base is the ball-like ovary, from whose top rise the five clustered style-columns round which is gathered honey.
The structure bespeaks a member of the Caryophylaceæ family - the campions and the pinks - and hence the plant is often known as the "Corn-Campion," or the "Corn-Pink," and, indeed, its nearest relatives are the white campion and the ragged robin. The length of its long tube, and the distance of the honey from the mouth of the flower, indicate that it is essentially a butterfly and moth flower: no other insects have probosces long enough to reach down so deep a pit. When the flower opens, five of the stamens - those opposite the sepals - have their anthers discharging their pollen, though in the centre of the flower the five styles, taller than the stamens, are still in a tight bundle. For a day, at least, the flower remains thus, and visiting butterflies and bees carry off this pollen. Then the anthers drop from these five stamens, but the styles open out in the centre and with, literally, "open arms" receive visitors for what they can get. Meanwhile, the other five stamens are maturing, and their filaments growing, so that a little later, when their anthers open, they are on a par with the stigmas, and their contents are poured out over them. Thus cross-fertilisation is first planned, and self-fertilisation is the second string to the bow.
During the few days of the plant's life the petals close protectingly at night, but one morning they do not re-open, but wither and fall. The ovary swells until it is the size and form of a small acorn, and always it is surrounded by the hairy sepal cup, and guarded by the five great, green points. The swelling causes the ten ribs of the calyx cup to depart from their parallelism, and to form a pattern like a Gothic window. If the handsome fruit be dissected when it is young it proves to consist of a green case closely fitting over a cone, which cone of immature seeds looks as though it had been cut jig-saw-wise into segments, and the segments left in situ. In these early days the cone lies in a bath of sweet mucilage, and each white seed tastes like an immature grain of corn. Later the mucilage is absorbed, the segments turn black, the cone falls to pieces, and in the dried case the ripe seeds rattle, and by the swaying of the wind are jerked out through five valves that open at its summit. Each seed has a roughened surface, and has been compared to a miniature, rolled-up hedgehog.
This plant is commonly said to be "a weed of cultivation," that is, a weed not really indigenous, but introduced at some period or other, in this case probably with corn. On the other hand, Professor Earle argues that since the Saxon form of its name is Coccel, and that word is not found in kindred dialects, it may be of Celtic origin and link the plant with the beginnings of our country's story. But this is no real argument, for the word "cockle" was at one time used in a general sense for "weed." In a "Herbal to the Bible," issued in 1585, we are expressly told "under the name Cockle and Darnel is comprehended all vicious, noisome and unprofitable graine, encombring and hindering good come." Spenser says:
"And thus of all my harvest-hope I have
Nought reaped but a weedie crop of care,
Which, when I thought have thresht a swelling sheave
Cockle for corn and chaff for barley bare."
And when Job said, "Let thistles grow instead of wheat, and cockle instead of barley," the sense was eneral, as is shown by the alternative reading given in the margin, "or, noisome weed"; and so, too, when Latimer exclaimed with fervour from the pulpit, "Oh that our prelates would bee as diligent to sowe the corne of goode doctrine as Sathan is to sowe Cockle and Darnel." But in the sixteenth century its application began to be narrowed down, and in the 1623 edition of Gerard this description accompanies a picture of the plant in question: "Cockle is a common and hurtfull weed in our Corne, and very well knowne by the name of Cockle... What hurt it doth among corne, the spoile of bread, as well in colour, taste and unwholesomenesse, is better known than desired."
For its specific name Githago - "this floure is now called among the learned githago," wrote Dodonseus in 1583 - and its old English name Gith, it is difficult to find a meaning. "Pawple" and "Papple," of course, refer to the purple colour, while "Cockweed" is a slurring for "Cocldeweed."
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