This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Magenta or bright purplish crimson, 1 to 3 in. broad, solitary at end of long, stout footstem; 5 lobes of calyx leaf-like, very long and narrow, exceeding petals. Corolla of 5 broad, rounded petals; 10 stamens; 5 styles alternating with calyx lobes, opposite petals. Stem: 1 to 3 ft. high, erect, with few or no branches, leafy, the plant covered with fine white hairs. Leaves: Opposite, seated on stem, long, narrow, pointed, erect. Fruit: a 1-celled, many-seeded capsule.
PreferredHabitat - Wheat and other grain fields; dry, waste places.
Flowering Season - July - September.
Distribution - United States at large; most common in Central and Western States. Also in Europe and Asia.
"Allons! allons! sow'd cockle, reap'd no corn," exclaims Biron in "Love's Labor Lost." Evidently the farmers even in Shakespeare's day counted this brilliant blossom the pest it has become in many of our own grain fields just as it was in ancient times, when Job, after solemnly protesting his righteousness, called on his own land to bear record against him if his words were false. "Let thistles grow instead of wheat, and cockle instead of barley," he cried, according to James the First's translators; but the " noisome weeds " of the original text seem to indicate that these good men were more anxious to give the English people an adequate conception of Job's willingness to suffer for his honor's sake than to translate literally. Possibly the cockle grew in Southern Asia in Job's time: to-day its range is north.
Like many another immigrant to our hospitable shores, this vigorous invader shows a tendency to outstrip native blossoms in life's race. Having won in the struggle for survival in the old country, where the contest has been most fiercely waged for centuries, it finds life here easy, enjoyable. What are its methods for insuring an abundance of fertile seed? We see that the tube of the flower is so nearly closed by the stamens and five-styled pistil as to be adapted only to the long, slender tongues of moths and butterflies, for which benefactors it became narrow and deep to reserve the nectar. A certain night-flying moth (one of the Dianthcecia) fertilizes flowers of this genus exclusively, and its larvae feed on their unripe seeds as a staple. Bees and some long-tongued flies seen about the corn cockle doubtless get pollen only; but there are few flowers so deep that the longest-tongued bees cannot sip them. Butterflies, attracted by the bright color of the flower - and to them color is the most catchy of advertisements - are guided by a few dark lines on the petals to the nectary.
Soon after the blossom opens, five of the stamens emerge from the tube and shed their pollen on the early visitor. Later, the five other stamens empty the contents of their anthers on more tardy comers. Finally, when all danger of self-fertilization is past, the styles stretch upward, and the butterfly, whose head is dusted with pollen brought from earlier flowers, necessarily leaves some on their sticky surfaces as he takes the leavings in the nectary.
So much cross-fertilized seed as the plant now produces and scatters through the grain fields may well fill the farmer's prosaic mind with despair. To him there is no glory in the scarlet of the poppy comparable with the glitter of a silver dollar; no charm in the heavenly blue of the corn-flower, that likewise preys upon the fertility of his soil; the vivid flecks of color with which the cockle lights up his fields mean only loss of productiveness in the earth that would yield him greater profit without them. Moreover, seeds of this so-called weed not only darken his wheat when they are threshed out together, but are positively injurious if swallowed in any quantity. Emerson said every plant is called a weed until its usefulness is discovered. Linnaeus called this flower Agro-stemma = the crown-of-the-field. Agriculturalists never realize that beauty is in itself a sufficient plea for respected existence. Not a few of the cockle's relatives adorn men's gardens.