Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

October 2016

‘Wheat and tares together sown’

In this season of harvest we sing the familiar hymn ‘Come ye thankful people come, raise the song of harvest home’ which includes ‘All the world is God’s own field, fruit unto His praise to yield ; Wheat and tares together sown, unto joy or sorrow grown’.

In modern parlance ‘tares’ means a pea-like plant, common vetch (Vicia) which would be possible , though tedious, to weed out in the early stages of the crop, added to which it is a beneficial plant, having roots adding nitrogen to the soil.

In our wheat fields today the most difficult and persistent weed is a different grass species known as Black Grass Alopecurus myosuroides. Controlling this costs European farmers a lot of money and imposes limits as to how often wheat can be grown in an affected field. Strict rotations are the order of the day. A later drilling of autumn cereals gives an opportunity for black grass seedlings to be destroyed beforehand whether by extra cultivation or a herbicide.

However, the biblical reference indicating weeds in a wheat crop is quite different. Biblical tares, still common in Mediterranean countries, is a ryegrass- like plant also stated in some Bibles as darnel. This is almost indistinguishable from wheat, particularly in the early stages, hence in the parable of the wheat field (Matthew 13) where it was suggested to be better to leave the weed in the crop until harvest when the undesirable plants can be separated and burned.

Darnel (Lolium temulentum) is widespread in Palestine and Syria and the seeds have a degree of toxicity producing a soporific state. Its closest relative here is the harmless Lolium perenne which is important for pasture grass, hay and silage and an amusing children’s fortune teller:- ‘This Year, Next Year, Sometime, Never, Silk, Satin, Muslin, Rags and so on’ as the seeds are picked off.

The parable suggests that an enemy is responsible for spreading biblical tares or weeds in the wheat field i.e. in our lives. The similarity of growth and dropping of seed suggests that the introduced weed could present problems for us throughout our lives, clearly the work of a devilish enemy!

Andrew Tompsett