Economic Botany: A Textbook of Useful Plants and Plant Products

By Albert F. Hill | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
THE MAJOR CEREALS

THE NATURE OF CEREALS

The cereals are without question the most important sources of plant food for man and the lower animals. This is not only true today, but has been so since earliest time. During their long period of cultivation their original wild ancestors have been lost sight of, and countless new species and varieties have been evolved. Much of this evolution occurred prior to the historical period for the older civilizations were already familiar with several kinds of wheat, barley, and other grains. Moreover, the actual origin of these useful plants had been so long forgotten that they were given supernatural powers and played a part in the religious ceremonies of the various nations of antiquity.

Long before the Christian era the ancient Romans held festivals at seed time and harvest in honor of the goddess Ceres, whom they worshipped as the giver of grain. At these festivals they brought offerings of wheat and barley, the cerealia munera, or gifts of Ceres, a fact responsible for the modern name, "cereals." The Greeks had similar religious observations. In the New World the Mexican natives worshipped an agricultural deity to whom they brought the first fruits of their harvest. In fact, nearly every primitive race has worshipped some deity who presided over its crops.

The cereals are all members of the great grass family, Gramineae, and are alike in possessing the characteristic fruit of that family, the karyopsis. In this fruit the wall of the seed becomes fused with the ripening ovary wall to form the husk. The term "grain" is applied either to this type of fruit or to the plant that produces it. The true cereals are six in number: barley, maize, oats, rice, rye, and wheat. Of these wheat, maize, and rice are the most important, and each has played an important part in the development of civilization. Sometimes the millets, sorghums, and even buckwheat are erroneously referred to as cereals.

The reasons for the importance of cereals as food plants are many. One or more of these grasses are available for each kind of climate. The northern regions have barley and rye, the temperate regions wheat, and the tropics and warmer temperate areas maize and rice. Cereals also have a wide range of soil and moisture requirements. They can be cultivated with a small amount of labor, and have a large yield. The

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