Our thinking about the food we grow has always revolved around storage – root cellaring, drying, canning, etc. Equally important was yield vs effort. So wheat, while storing well, wasn’t high on our list because of the need to till. A few years ago while looking for information on seed saving, I stumbled across a now defunct website called primalseeds.org (Thanks to the Wayback Machine, it still exists.)
One of its pages was about Little Known Food Crops. Scrolling down, I saw the usual amaranth, quinoa, spelt. But then I came to perennial grains and sat bolt upright – grain with no annual tilling, just annual harvesting. Suddenly grains were very interesting. Doubly so because one of the features of perennial grasses is their deep roots systems which allow them to withstand drought.
There wasn’t much info in the article beyond that on perennial buckwheat:
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.
Searching for “perennial grains”, “perennial wheat”, and “perennial rye” gave lots of general essays about their desirability, the low yields relative to annual varieties, the number of years before we’d have perennial grains. There were some links to researchers. And there were links to a one-man breeding effort – PR Seeds which was no longer in business but I had a name, Tim Peters and some information about him. A bit more digging and I found people who had some of Tim’s perennial wheat and perennial rye and were willing to share. Finding the perennial buckwheat was quite a bit more difficult until someone pointed me to the Genebank Information System of the IPK Gatersleben in Saxony, Germany. I put in a request for seed and received 40 seeds about 7 weeks later.
So I seeded perennial wheat, rye, and buckwheat in a raised bed and waited. I also seed some of the rye in pots under lights in late March.
Germination was quick and growth was proceeding nicely until the drought stopped all growth.
I decided to mulch heavily around the plants although I had hoped to see how they would do with little or no assistance. They resumed growth. The rye was the first to tiller and then head. But a lot of the heads contained ergot, a fungus which, when eaten, causes St. Anthony’s Fire.
The ergot may have been on the mulch I used – wild grass – which can be a host. It may be that the compost in the raised bed was deficient in copper which will lead to ergot in wheat, barley and oats. Perhaps rye is also affected? Ergot infection in rye is severe under very dry weather conditions, an indication that it’s main method of spread is via insects that feed on the conidial ooze in infected rye florets before transfer to uninfected open flowers. Perhaps an insecticidal soap would help. Nonetheless, I was able to harvest some clean grain. The wheat was much later to tiller and head but I was able to harvest a small handful.
The buckwheat was even later.
We covered the plants with a row cover but perennial buckwheat is clearly very frost sensitive since it did not survive. I did manage to get 3 ripened black seeds and 2 maybe ripened dark brown seeds.
I’m pleased with the outcome but the spring will tell whether I grew annuals or perennials.