Monday, September 03, 2007

Foxtail Barley

I’m making progress on my grass identification project now that I’ve got a copy of Pojar’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. For instance, this grass that grows in the parkways all over my neighborhood. I think of it as foxtail. And according to Pojar’s, it’s common name is foxtail barley. The Latin name is hordeum jubatum.

Pojar's says it grows along roadsides which explains why I find it in the parkway. Once I brought my specimen inside, the little spikelets starting breaking off. They look like little satellites with their long tails (those are called awns) and their sharp points. Each bristle has barbs that point backwards and these can become lodged and work their way into the nose, mouth, ears, eyes or even intestines of animals that eat them. So right now I’m going to scoop them all up and throw them in the trash, before Pepe, the Chihuahua, finds them.

According to Plants for a Future, it is possible to make flour out of them by grinding up the seeds. The roasted seeds can also be used to make a substitute for coffee. But it’s hardly worth the effort.

On the other hand, when I went looking for references on the Internet to foxtail barley, I found a related plant in the University of Washington herbarium: hordeum pusillum. Now I’m not really sure what I found. Since they are related, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Wikipedia’s article on barley mentions that barley was a staple cereal in ancient Egypt where it was used to make both bread and beer. The English word beer comes from barley. It is appropriate that I am featuring it in the month of September, for the initiates at the Eleusinian Mysteries, held in honor of Demeter (known as Barley-mother) during the full moon of September, drank a ritual drink (kykeon) made of barley and herbs.

Barley-water (made by steeping pearl barley in hot water) is a popular drink in England where it is often the first food offered to babies. The Victorian Martha Stewart, Mrs. Beeton, includes a recipe for her barley-water in her section on cooking for invalids. Pearl barley is washed in cold water, then boiled in 2 quarts of boiling water. Once the liquid is reduced to half, the barley is strained out. It can be flavored with lemon peel, either afterwards or while boiling.

Beeton, Isabella, Beeton's Book of Household Management, first published London 1861, facsimile Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1977
Poajr, Jim & Andy MacKinnon, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Lone Pine Publishing 1994

1 comment:

Henry Thoreau said...


I'm also beginning a year-long effort to identify and write about our local grasses (we live in the Bay Area). As you've likely figured out, the sources on grasses don't seem aimed at beginners and tend to be on the technical side.

The best book for me is Lauren Brown's, Grasses, an identification guide. Alas, it is geared to the east coast, but is helpful nonetheless.

Anyway, keep up the good work.

('m just beginning, so the blog is kind of weak)