Field cow-wheat (Melampyrum arvense)

Field cow-wheat in flower
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Field cow-wheat fact file

Field cow-wheat description

GenusMelampyrum (1)

This colourful endangered plant has pale green, toothed and narrow leaves that grow on opposite sides of the stem. The flowers grow in a spike known as an inflorescence, and are generally purplish-pink in colour with a yellow throat and lip. Long, thin bracts also emerge from the flower spike; these can be green, deep pink or white in colour (4). A local name for this species is 'poverty weed' as the seeds gave a bad taste to flour and devalued the price of corn (5).

Height: up to 60 cm (2)

Field cow-wheat biology

This annual plant is hemi-parasitic(3), this means that its roots attach to those of other plants and it is able to obtain some nutrition from them. Plants grown in the absence of a host fail to thrive. A wide range of plants can be used as hosts (3), especially grasses (6). Field cow-wheat flowers from June to September, the flowers being pollinated by bumblebees (6). The heavy seeds are poor dispersers and can stay dormant in the soil for about two years (6). They have a small oil body at one end, which is attractive to ants, who may carry the seeds to their nests, eat the oil body then discard the seed (6). By doing so they aid in the dispersal of the plant. The seeds are unusual in that they germinate in the autumn, and the roots develop well before the shoots (which develop in the spring); presumably this is so that the seedlings can attach themselves to the roots of host plants quite quickly (6).


Field cow-wheat range

This species was first recorded in 1724 in Britain, and is probably native to the Isle of Wight, but may be introduced elsewhere (6). Never a particularly common species, field cow-wheat was known from the south and east of England. At present it occurs at just four sites, in Wiltshire, Bedfordshire and on the Isle of Wight (6). It has been deliberately planted at some sites (6). Elsewhere it occurs in Europe, extending to the Ural Mountains in the east, southern Sweden in the north and the northern Mediterranean in the south (3). In recent years it has declined in France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands (6).

You can view distribution information for this species at the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.

Field cow-wheat habitat

Formerly an arable weed, field cow-wheat has more recently been recorded from open grassland on the edge of a chalk cliff, on track edges, in a flowerbed, and by an old brick-pit (6). It usually grows on calcareous soils in grasslands, and tends to be associated with places that have recently been disturbed (3).


Field cow-wheat status

Classified as Endangered in Great Britain and fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 (3).


Field cow-wheat threats

Agricultural improvements such as improved seed cleaning and the use of herbicides and fertilisers have resulted in loss of species from arable fields (3). Field cow-wheat cannot cope with heavy competition or over-grazing, and requires some disturbance to its habitats. If conservation management ceased at most sites natural succession would result in the loss of suitable habitat, as scrub would invade (3).


Field cow-wheat conservation

As mentioned above, conservation management maintains suitable conditions for this species at most of the remaining UK sites (3).

There may be further information about this species available via the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.

Find out more

For more on this species see the book: New Atlas of the Flora of Britain and Ireland, by Preston, C. D., Pearman, D. A., Dines, T. D. (2002). Published by Oxford University Press, London.

Visit the website of the Botanical Society of the British Isles at:



Information authenticated by Dr P. J. Wilson.



Lives or grows for just one year.
Modified leaf at the base of a flower.
Containing free calcium carbonate, chalky.
Plant that obtains some nutrition from a host plant, but is able to survive independently as it possesses the pigment chlorophyll and a root system.
The reproductive shoot of the plant, which bears flowers (See for a fact sheet on flower structure).
In plants, petal or petals that form a lobe.
Natural succession
The progressive sequence of changes in vegetation types and animal life within a community that, if allowed to continue, result in the formation of a 'climax community' (the last stage in a succession where the vegetation reaches equilibrium with the environment).


  1. National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (October 2002)
  2. Clapham, A. R., Tutin, T. G. & Warburg, E. F. (1981) Excursion Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  3. Wigginton, M. J. (1999) British Red Data Books 1; Vascular Plants. 3rd Edition. JNCC, Peterborough.
  4. Press, B. & Gibbons, B. (1993) Photographic field guide: Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe. New Holland (Publishers) Ltd., London.
  5. Grigson, G. (1996) The Englishman's Flora. Helicon Publishing Ltd. Oxford.
  6. Wilson, P. J. (1993) The ecology and conservation of Melampyrum arvense L. (field cow-wheat). Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, Romsey.

Image credit

Field cow-wheat in flower  
Field cow-wheat in flower

© Bob Gibbons / Natural Image

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