Ark of Taste
Purple Straw Wheat
Triticum aestivum v. Purple Straw
Purple Straw Wheat is one of the great heirloom wheats of the Southeast, predating the founding of the United States. It is said that it is the oldest wheat crop grown in Virginia. When Purple Straw Wheat is milled, it produces soft flour with a low gluten content. This makes it a wonderful flour to use for pastries, pie crusts, pancakes, and gravies because it produces delicate baked goods. Its distinctive baking qualities are one of the characteristics that make Purple Straw Wheat stand out from other wheat varieties.
Highly adaptable, Purple Straw Wheat can be grown as spring wheat because it does not require vernalization, meaning it does not require exposure to cold temperatures in order to induce flowering. It can also be overwintered, sown in the fall and harvested in early spring to go to market. Its principle advantage over other varieties in the early 1900’s was its early maturity, and higher protein content. It is also fairly resistant to native diseases, which gives it a genetic advantage over growing other wheat varieties in the Southeast. This is also an environmental advantage, the early maturity and disease resistance allow for Purple Straw Wheat to be cultivated in a sustainable fashion, without the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
Once its growth was established in the South, Purple Straw Wheat remained fixed in certain areas well into the twentieth century. It ceased being a crop wheat in the 1970s and 80s when the new green revolution wheats became widespread. These hybrid varieties outcompeted Purple Straw in the market, and thereafter it was a considered a rare heirloom variety, grown solely in patches in its old cultivation area. Despite its advantages in both genetics and taste, this historic variety was replaced by conventional wheat crops.
The preservation of the most ancient and enduring grains employed in America is one of the first level priorities of anyone concerned with protecting agricultural and culinary heritage. Cereals supply the basic chords of cuisine – the breads, porridges, and brews. The deepest chords – the one’s that have shaped the taste of foods for centuries in a region – and the ones most in need of advocacy. Purple Straw Wheat is one of the great heirloom wheats of the Southeast, and we must do whatever possible to restore it to our table.