Thursday, August 17, 2023

Barley and Millet: Yes, Some Foods Do Grow like Weeds

Hordeum vulgare (Barley)

Barley is the 4th largest in terms of grain production, behind the other grass crops such as maize/corn, rice, and wheat. The species was domesticated around 10,000 years ago in the Eurasian region, and most barley is used for animal fodder, with the rest being used as food or for the making of fermented products such as beer. 

I was walking along one of the sidewalks here in Broomfield, CO, when I noticed quite a few attractive looking grasses along the sides of a building construction site. They weren't the usual Hordeum jubatum (commonly called foxtail barley here), which is pretty abundant in the area, and instead looked like some kinda short wheat (Triticum aestivum).

Spikelets of H. vulgare

Intrigued by the specimens, I started looking more into it. In terms of identification, I like trying to figure out the various wheat-like species only about a bit more than I like trying to make some sense of the different wheatgrass species. But after poring over identification guides and some apps, I finally decided that what I was looking at was the common barley.

Well-developed auricles of H. vulgare

Hordeum vulgare is an annual from the subfamily Pooideae, and the fact that this crop species also grows as a weed is a revelation to me. It's like coming upon a vast field of rice that grew naturally, without any help from the hand of people. Nevertheless, it turns out that this species, even though cultivated for millennia, does indeed have the capacity to still grow adventitiously along roadsides and other off-field areas.

The specimens seemed to be concentrated in that small block, as I have not really seen it elsewhere in the area, which is also intriguing. In fact, close to this cluster (the next block over) I found a second grass species that is also used as a food crop.

Panicum miliaceum (commonly called Proso Millet) is in the subfamily Panicoideae, and is just one of the many species that make up the group of food crops called "millet".

Panicum miliaceum (commonly called Proso Millet)

Proso millet was first domesticated around 8000 years ago in Northern China. There are some suggestions that this species, because of its ability to be harvested in as little as 45 days after planting, as well as its ability to produce crop in very little moisture, may have formed the bridge between hunter gatherer lifestyles and more sedentary agriculture. 

Panicum miliaceum

The domesticated crop has a tendency to revert to wild type, and the single specimen that I found was growing near a construction site, next to some landscape plantings on the sidewalk. It formed an arresting sight, with the heavy flowerheads drooping in thick bunches almost to the ground.

It is tempting to imagine how these food crops were first domesticated. Perhaps some hunter gatherers who had missed out on snagging a large prehistoric herbivore were dejectedly slouching back home, when they chanced upon fields of Panicum miliaceum, their tops overflowing with ripe grains. Or perhaps the discoverers of this new food crop were women who had been searching for edible berries and other vegetable goodies. Maybe people were getting tired of the vagaries of hunting and searching for food, and decided that planting food crops close to you might be a better idea. Or maybe a plant started as a weed infesting earlier crop plants, but was later seen to be another good food source and thus domesticated. This was what happened in the case of oats (Avena spp), which started as weeds in barley and wheat fields. The study of how agriculture started is endlessly fascinating, and one that I'll likely get into in a future post.

As an aside, the sight of food crops like these still growing wild reminds me that humanity's time here on earth is but a blip in the much larger time periods that some species inhabit. If ever our kind dies out, whether through disease or war or some unlikely event that we cannot fathom, it's likely that many of our "domesticated" plants will revert back to their wild ways, their brief tenure as indentured "servants" to the "raging apes" soon forgotten in the dim corridors of time.  

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