Little Known Grains

Little Known Grains



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(Grains not derived from members of the grass family Graminaceae)

Grain amaranthAmaranthus caudatus, A. cruentus, A. hypochondriacus etc.
One of the few non-grasses widely cultivated as a grain, several species of amaranth have been cultivated since ancient times by the peoples of the South American continent including the Incas and Aztecs. The grains are one of the most nutritious foods known, they are high in calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, vitamins B and D and lysine, an amino acid lacking in most plant foods. Seeds are very small but produced in great profusion; yields are commonly of 1-3 tonnes per hectare. Amaranth grains can be used to make flour for baking, popped like popping corns or made into porridge.

Amaranths are also cultivated for their good tasting edible leaves. Although not recorded in agricultural statistics that ignore subsistence use, amaranths are one of the most widely used vegetables in tropical regions. Amaranth has not been grown on commercial scale and it would be very difficult to harvest grains mechanically, but they are highly adaptable plants that can be grown in a wide variety of climates. All types are sensitive to day length, Mexican grain amaranths of species A. cruentus being the most suitable for northern climates.

Quinoa – Chenopodium quinoa
To the Incas quinoa, pronounced keen-o-wa was a sacred grain. It is still very important to millions of people living in the highlands of Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador. Has great potential as a crop elsewhere, cultivation is easy, it is very cold tolerant and disease resistant. Quinoa grain is highly nutritious, easily digestible and takes very little energy to cook. Grains contain 16-23% protein, are high in lysine, methionine and cystine and have a better protein and animo acid balance for human consumption than any other cereal.

It has been used to make flour, beer, deserts, breakfast cereal and animal feed, while the leaves make a good spinach like vegetable. The grains of most quinoa varieties are coated in saponins, a bitter and mildly poisonous substance that has the benefit of keeping birds from eating the seed; it takes several washes to remove the saponins. Saponin free varieties have been developed, these are the types used to produce the quinoa on sale in health food shops.

Fat hen – Chenopodium alba
A common European annual weed that is a distant relative of quinoa. A good leaf crop and spinach substitute that also has potential as a seed crop with some selection. Seed is small but has 16-18% protein, should be soaked before eating to remove bitter saponins.


Ancient wheats. Einkorn, Emmer, spelt – Triticum species
Ancient wheats are generally higher yielding in poor conditions than modern wheats and are still cultivated today in remote areas for this reason. Wheats that produce light textured bread were developed recently through many years of intensive selection and breeding. Lower amounts of gluten may make old wheats less satisfactory for bread makers, but means they are more readily digested. A market for spelt has recently developed among increasing numbers who have intolerance to gluten. Einkorn has a lower protein content than modern wheat but higher amounts of amino acids and ?-carotene.

Tartarian buckwheat – India wheat, bitter buckwheat, Fagopyrum tartaricum
Cultivation of this type of buckwheat began long ago in China. A very quickly and easily grown cereal it succeeds in poorer soils and in colder conditions than most other crops. Prefers cool and wet conditions but it can grow in dry and arid conditions. It is cultivated in the high and cold mountain areas of the southwest and northwest of China and the Himalayas. Madawaska buckwheat is a variety of Tartarian buckwheat that is even more drought and cold tolerant, seed is available from Future Foods.

In more favourable locations yields are lower than of common buckwheat Fagopyrum esculentum, but Tartarian buckwheat has a more nutritious grain with a protein content of 11.6%, this higher than wheat, corn, rice or buckwheat. The content of potassium, magnesium and zinc is also higher than other cereals, it is especially rich in lysine, oleic acid and linoleic acid, and contains rutin that reduces blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

Wild riceZizania palustris
Wild rice is native to North America where it has been gathered from the edges of lakes and waterways since prehistoric times. Not to be confused with either of the two distinct wild rice species from which Asian rice and African rice were developed.

Wild rice grains are highly nutritious, with a protein content (13.8%) close to that of wheat (14.8%) and far exceeding cultivated brown rice (8.1%). Furthermore has higher content of amino acids lysine and methionine, and essential fatty acids linolenic and linoleic than most cereals. While processed wild rice contains no vitamin A, it is a good source of the B vitamins: thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and minerals. Wild rice is adapted only to flooded conditions, it performs best in northern latitudes

Fonio (Acha)Digitaria exilis
Cultivated for thousands of years, is part of the diet of 3-4 million people in West Africa. Fonio has been largely ignored outside Africa. The European colonists originally called it “hungry rice”, yet it is one of the most nutritious and best tasting grains. It is rich in the amino acids cystine and methionine that are deficient in all major cereals. Some fonio varieties are world’s fastest maturing cereals and can produce grain in just 6-8 weeks. Potential in hot, semi arid areas, is extremely adaptable and happy on poor and acidic soils.

Disadvantages: small seed, lower yield than other cereals under good conditions, some shattering.


Intermediate Wheatgrass or Wild Triga wheat- Thinopyrum intermedium.
A relative of cultivated wheat that is native to the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. Present cultivars have largely been developed for use as forage and animal feed. Triga wheat produces grains of good flavour, nutritionally similar to wheat that can be ground into flour for baked products or used as a whole grain like rice. This perennial grain will produce its first grain crop about 11 months from an autumn sowing. It requires freezing winter temperatures in order to produce grain the following year. Plants begin forming heads of grain in June and are ready for harvest in August.

A long term evaluation of almost 100 potential perennial grain crops carried out by The Rodale Research Centre concluded that triga wheat showed the greatest promise as a perennial grain crop. Breeding programs over less than two decades in the US have created cultivars with 30% higher yields. There is potential for use in breeding programs with cultivated wheats which can produce crosses with triga wheat, to develop perennial strains (perennialisation is obviously not a priority of seed companies when developing new cultivars).

In tests by the US Department of Agriculture intermediate wheatgrass grains were found to be free of gluten.

Disadvantages: Probably can never expect as high yield as from an annual grain crops because larger part of a perennial plant’s energy goes to root production to sustain the plant over winter

Eastern gamagrass aka Sesame grass – Tripsacum dactyloides or Zea diploperennis.
A perennial grass native to eastern North America where it once grew abundantly in the wild, however its desirability to grazing animals means it is one of the first grasses to be eliminated by constant grazing and is now uncommon except in protected areas. It is similar in appearance to red varieties of corn and believed by some to be a forefather of corn. Very nutritious grain contains about 27% protein, three times that of corn and twice that of wheat, and has higher levels of linoleic and oleic acids and methionine.

While development of cultivars has so far concentrated on forage varieties, Eastern gamagrass has great potential as a warm-season perennial grain crop on a wide variety of soils. It has spongy stem tissue that allows it survive in flooded conditions like rice. This plant has been used to control soil erosion and for the ability of its root system to break up compacted soils and hard clay pans.

Disadvantage: Low yields at present.

A perennial grain believed to have been first created by plant breeders in the US in the early 20th century by a cross of wheat (Triticum) and wheatgrass (Agropyron). Agrotriticum is classed as a species in its own right and it breeds true. It is very resistant to fungal disease, lodging, insect pests and drought. In the 1950’s Soviet scientists bred a strain of agrotriticum with a protein content of 25% (the best winter wheats are 15% protein and wheatgrass is no more than 20%).

At the University of California a high protein agrotriticum was developed for good baking qualities and seemed to rival wheat in yields, but production declined after the first year. Research was largely given up at a time when commercial interests were taking over plant breeding and driving the research agenda in the direction of hybrid annual grains.

Perennial buckwheat, Hara, Fagopyrum dibotrys.
This species is native to East Asia and is common in the Himalayas where it is called Hara; it has occasionally been cultivated as a grain crop. There are 14 known species of buckwheat Fagopyrum, the widely cultivated types are annuals, there are other perennial wild buckwheats including Fagopyrum cymosum and F. statice.