banner (17K)

plant profile: Oats - Avena sativa


(Avena sativa)

avena (53K)


A member of the Poaceae family, which has also given us wheat, rye, barley rice and maize. Oats differ from our other major grains in that the fruits do not grow in an ear of tightly packed seeds but rather in a pendulous panicle, with the seeds dangling freely in the wind. Its colour is of a distinctive bluish green tint.


Oats are fairly hardy in terms of their soil requirements. However, although they can tolerate heavy soils and a cool and rainy climate, they do not like the shade. In Europe Oats are cultivated mostly in the northern countries, northern Germany, Brittany and Normandy in France, in western parts of the UK, Wales and Scotland, Irelands, and Scandinavia. It can even be grown in Iceland. In eastern Europe its range extends down to the Ukraine. Some varieties (which are not grown commercially to any great extent) can tolerate the much drier climate of the Mediterranean. Today it is also grown in almost every State of the continental United States and Canada. However, as it is largely grown as fodder for livestock the area given to it has been much reduced since the rise of the soy-bean.


A field of oatsOats probably originated somewhere in Eurasia, though their exact origin is not too clear. The archeological record shows that it was cultivated in Greece at about 400BC, though it was not grown in the Roman world until the 1st century AD. Oats seem to have edged their way into cultivation opportunistically. They were practically asking to be cultivated as they consistently appeared as voluntary 'weeds' in amongst the wheat fields. However, at first it was not given much attention, since its seeds broke off or flew off in the wind so easily. It was simply harvested along with the wheat. Eventually it was realized that Oats were actually a valuable species, particularly in northern climates where the weather was not conducive to growing wheat. In northern regions Oats have been found amongst archeological remains that date back to the Bronze Age.

However, as Oats contain little gluten, they are not very suitable for making bread, which was one of the main stays of ancients diets. Instead, it was perfect for gruel or porridge, with its creamy texture and nutty, slightly sweet flavour. In fact, it is an excellent food, with a high protein content, a range of vitamins and minerals and a large proportion of water soluble fiber. In Scotland, which arguably harbors the most extensive oat tradition, the porridge was traditionally prepared with water and salt. The mixture was oured into a special porridge drawer, where it would harden as it dried. This could be sliced up and packed for a nurishing snack while out in the fields. This probably also gave rise to the sweet variant, known as flapjack, a chewy and very filling oat bar. While Oats were grown in many parts of Europe, most of the harvest went to feed the lifestock, especially horses. Only the Scottish seemed to have appreciated Oats fully. There is a funny little joke that sums it up perfectly:

An English man and a Scottish man are sitting in the pub and the English fellow is teasing the Scot: 'Isn't it funny that you Scottish people eat so much porridge and oats? We only feed that stuff to the horses!' 'Aye' replies the Scot, 'that's why the English have the finest horses, and the Scottish have the strongest men.'

rolledoats (78K)Indeed, horse breeders report that a diet of oats will make horses 'excitable' and spunky. But, it appears, the same can be said for men, according to an Australian study in which athletes were given a daily portion of porridge. As a result their endurance levels went up 4 times! No doubt, the realization that oats are energizing gave rise to the idiom of 'feeling one's oats'.

In folk tradition oats serve as an appropriate symbol of fertility. In Slavic countries oats were cast over bride and groom on their wedding day - which has now been replaced by the rather less promising confetti. Likewise, young lads on a certain day of the year were to cast oat (maybe their oats?) on the young girls. Grains that stuck to their dresses were supposed to indicate how many children the girls would have (or, sometimes, how many lovers). The practice was regarded as a fertility rite, especially if the grain had been blessed on a certain day. (Associated with St. Stephen, Dec. 26)

All grains were used in such folkloristic fertility rites, but in the case of oats the choice was perhaps a little more appropriate. Oats are a great source of nutrition.

They are rich in proteins, iron B vitamins, folate, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus and selenium as well as poly-unsaturated fatty acids. As they are very mild and non-allergenic they are often recommended as a food for convalescence.

oat seeds (83K)As they only have to be thrashed in order to release the seeds rather than cleaned and polished like wheat, they retain mush more of their nutritional value in the processing, though adding oatbran to the porridge will enrich it, nutritionally. However, people who are allergic to gluten should avoid them. Although they contain very little gluten, they are often stored with other grains and thus can easily be contaminated.

Medicinal uses

Parts used:

seed, herb

Harvesting time:



saponins, alkaloids (trigonelline and avenine, flavonoids, starch, protein (gluten), fats, minerals (silica, iron, calcium,copper, magnesium, manganese, zinc) vitamin B


nervine, restorative, nutrition, demulcent

Oat porridge is one of the best restorative foods for convalescence. It is filling and tasty and nutritious, yet easy to digest. It is the best food for people suffering from problems of the stomach or digestive system or gallbladder. Thanks to its high proportion of soluble fiber it is also an excellent food for heart-health and lowers cholesterol levels. It is also useful in controlling blood sugar spike in diabetes and hypoglycemia.

The straw is used as a nutritious tea, that is energizing and mildly anti-depressive. It helps to regenerate a depleted and exhausted nervous system, especially when accompanied by depression. It is helpful in cases of adrenal exhaustion.

Externally one can add either oatmeal to the bathwater (fill a sock with several spoons of oatmeal, tie the top and run the bathwater through it.) to soothe certain itchy skin conditions, such as eczema. In the old days oat straw was often used for padding mattresses, which is said to have been particularly beneficial for people suffering from rheumatism. Oatstraw is high in silicilic acid, which makes it useful as a wash for sores. It is also recommended as an additive to the bathwater for people suffering from liver and kidney complaints. For this purpose it is best to make a decoction.

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