Wild About Wheat (and Other Grains)!

by Drs. Katie Liberatore and Marisa Miller

Did you know that Aegilops – the name for a genus of grasses including wild wheat relatives – is the longest word in the English language in which the letters are arranged in alphabetical order? This was just one of the many fun facts shared by volunteer scientists and educators at the Market Science booth this past Saturday at the Midtown Farmer’s Market.

We talked a lot about domestication of cereal crops this week, particularly wheat and barley. Humans began the process of cultivating these plants for use in the fertile crescent around 10,000 years ago. Some were interested to find that barley had a second point of domestication in western Asia. Modern cultivated wheat and wild species were on display to give an in-person view of how plants have been adapted to modern agriculture practices by humans. We discussed how the ancestors to both plants used to have “shattering” seeds that readily fell off the plant – this was important to spread the seeds in the wild. However, people selected for “non-shattering” plants so that all of the grains stay put until ready for harvest all at once. Market-goers were able to look under the microscope to view “shattering” versus “non-shattering” seeds, which have smooth and rough break-points from the plant, respectively.

Market-goers were able to test their knowledge of where in the world cereal grains, pseudocereals, and and grain legumes were domesticated with a fun matching game. Those who were paying attention in the first lesson were able to place wheat and barley on the map right away. Some crops were much more difficult to match to their point of origin – most were surprised that peanuts were first cultivated in the Andean region of South America!

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What defines a cereal versus a pseudocereal versus a grain legume? Good question! True cereals all belong to the grass family (Poaceae). True cereals include wheat, barley, oat, rye, corn, rice, sorghum, millet, and teff. Pseudocereals are not grasses, but are used for nutritional purposes like cereal grains. These include buckwheat and quinoa. Grain legumes are subset of legume crops that are grown for consumption of their seeds. These include peanuts, soybean, and chickpea.

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Budding artists had fun trying their hands at seed art. For the more scientific of the bunch, matching the grains to the proper plant was fun, while others chose to decorate farm scenes. Some market-goers even honored Prince with Purple gRAIN art. It was a great day at the Market! We hope to see you next Saturday.

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