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Avena Introduction

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In Samuel Johnson's dictionary, oats were defined as "eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England."
A Scotsman's retort to this is, "That's why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such fine men!"
(Extracted from 3.)

Photo by Claire Hebbard, Gramene

Photo courtesy Arthur Meeks @
Wisconsin State Herbarium


Oats are annual grasses, and are used as both for both human and animal nutrition, in addition to other purposes. They are a commonly grown crop in the world today. However, they bring with them a somewhat tempestuous history.

Modern oats probably originated from the Asian wild red oat which grew as a weed in other grain crops (3, 6, 12). Archaeological studies show that oats have been found dating from about 2,000 BC, but these grains were probably simply weed seeds (3). It was probably much closer to the birth of Christ before, as the last of the cereals to be cultivated, oats were purposely grown in southeast Europe or Asia Minor (3, 6, 12). Before being used as a food, they were used for medicinal purposes (4, 6).

Oats have a couple of traits that caused them to be less favored than other grains - a bland taste and a tendency to spoil. Greeks and Romans considered oats to be diseased wheat (12), and many cultures believed them to be better suited to animals (10). Despite these issues, oats became a staple in Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and the Scandivian countries (4, 6). It is from thedebate about the palatability of oats that the comments from Samuel Johnson's dictionary stemmed (see quote at top of page).

Oats were introduced to North America with other grains by Scottish settlers in 1602 (3, 6). They gradually became a major crop until about 1920, when machines began to replace horsepower (6). Acreage previously devoted to feed oats has now been replaced by soybeans, a more marketable crop (3). With the advance of knowledge about nutrition, oats were recognized as a healthy food in the mid 1980's (10) and therefore may become more popular once again for human nutrition.


Oats have a variety of uses. They are mostly recognized as an animal feed or for human consumption, but here are other known uses of the crop:


  1. Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants ( AVENA FATUA Linnaeus, var. SATIVA (Linnaeus) Haussknecht, Mitt. Geogr. Ges. (Thüringen) Jena 3: 238. 1885.
  2. FAOSTAT data, 2006. Last Accessed 4/14/2006.
  3. Gibson, L. & Benson, G. (2002). Origin, History, and Uses of Oat (Avena sativa) and Wheat (Triticum aestivum). Iowa State University, Department of Agronomy. Accessed 4/14/2006.
  4. North American Millers' association (2000). Oat foods: A smart choice. Retrieved April 14, 2006.
  5. Plants For A Future (2000). Accessed 4/15/06. Avena sativa. Plants for a Future, Blagdon Cross, Ashwater, Beaworthy, Devon, EX21 5DF, UK.
  6. Small, E. (1999). New crops for Canadian agriculture. p. 15-52. In: J. Janick (ed.), Perspectives on new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.
  7. USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program. Germplasm Resources Information Network - (GRIN) [Online Database]. National Germplasm Resources Laboratory, Beltsville, Maryland. URL: http://www.ars-grin.gov2/cgi-bin/npgs/html/ (14 April 2006)
  8. USDA, NRCS. (2006). The PLANTS Database, 6 March 2006. National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.
  9. Vandaveer, C. (2004). Oats, past and present. Accessed 4/14/2006.
  10. Whole Grains Bureau. Accessed 4/14/06. History of Whole Grains.
  11. Wikipedia contributors (2006). Oat. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 14, 2006 from
  12. Williams, John K. (2003) A Brief History of Oats - And How You Should Eat Them. Accessed 4/14/2006.
  13. Wisconsin Botanical Information System. Avena sativa L. Wisconsin State Herbarium - University of Wisconsin-Madison. Accessed 4/14/2006.