Ergot on Grains (Claviceps purpurea)

Photo 1: Ergot of Rye
Photo 2: Ergot on Wheat
Photo 3: Diagrams of Claviceps purpurea

Shelly (1995) has attempted to demonstrate that ergot was the soma of the Aryans, the haoma of the Parsis, the initiatory drug of the Mithraic mysteries, and the elixir or philosopher's stone of the alchemists. Gordon Wasson believed that ergot was the secret psychoactive ingredient in kykeon.
In his work On Nature, the Roman poet Lucretius (ca. 94- 55 B.C.) described a disease that can be interpreted as ergotism:

Suddenly this new and devastating air of plague descended
down upon the water, or it nested in the fruits of the field...
the entire body was reddened by burning sores,
as when the "sacred fire" spread [ignis sacer] spread over the limbs.
Throughout the inside of a person, so that it burned all the way down to the bones,
Burned in the stomach as brightly as the fire in the interior of the earth...
Completely confused condition wit fear and melancholia,
darkened brow and a sharp, even angry look in the eyes;
moreover, a fearfully excited hearing and buzzing in the ears.

Claviceps purpurea occurs worldwide as a parasite on grasses (June grass [ Poa pratensis L.], orchard grass [Dactylis glomerata L.], meadow foxtail [ Alopecurus pratensis L.]), and cereal grains (rye, barely, wheate). The fungus is found as a parasite on four hundred species of the Family Gramineae (=Poaceae).

Ergot is reproduced through a process known as rye inoculation:

To effect this, the blossoming rye spikes are infected using a conidial [spore] suspension obtained through in-vitro culture. This can occur by spraying or by injection, the latter being more effective. Today, inoculating machines that make it possible to efficiently infect large fields using the injection method are used for large-scale industrial production.

To produce ergot for pharmaceutical purposes, large fields of rye are now inoculated in Chechnyya, Hungary, and Portugal.

The sclerotium of Claviceps purpurea is dark purple. On rye (Secale cereale L.), the conelike sclerotium is dark violet to black, can grow up to 6 cm in length, and resembles a long, slender tooth.

Psychoactive Material
Secale cornutum (ergot)

Only the sclerotia (fruiting bodies) of ergot infecting rye ( Secale cereale L.) are used.

- pp. 645- 647, The Encyclopedia of Psychoactie Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications by Christian R├Ątsch (1998)

"In one of the earliest reported uses of bioterrorism, Rye Ergot (sclerotia) was used. This happened as early as the 6th century BCE by the Assyrians against the Israelites. This is generally regarded as the first case of bioterrorism.
The poisoning from ergot is called ergotism. The plant is infected with Claviceps purpurea which cause the health problems.
There can be either conclusive or gangrenous ergotism when poisoning has occurred. In a conclusive case the body has convulsions, muscle spasms, hallucinations, and other symptoms. In a gangrenous case, the victim may lose parts of their toes or fingers from gangrene."

- from Ergot on Rye, retrieved March 6th, 2011.

Related Reading:

Ergot on Rye
Ergot on Wheat
Claviceps purpurea