Charleston Gold: A Direct Descendant of Carolina Gold

Written by David Shields

Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Spring 2011


Charleston Gold, a short-stalked aromatic descendent of America‟s most historic rice, Carolina Gold, was approved for release by the Texas Department of Agriculture on February 11, 2011. Anna McClung of the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Rice Research Unit in Beaumont, Texas, field tested the variety over the last two years and has recommended to the state seed certification board that the variety be recognized.

Bred by Merle Shepard of the Clemson University, Coastal Research and Education Center in Charleston, SC and Gurdev S. Khush, the former Head, Plant Breeding, Genetics and Biochemistry Division of the International Rice Research Institute, in the Philippines, Charleston Gold retains the distinctive gold hull and wholesome mouth feel of its famous ancestor, adding to it the short stalk stature and longer grain of IR64. A further enhancement came from crossing with IR65610-24-3-6-3-2-3, a short stalked fragrant breeding line, giving Carolina Gold an aroma for the first time. Shepard and Khush developed Charleston Gold using the time-honored pedigree breeding method — the method employed by horticulturists in the era before gene-insertion — to make improvements on the classic grain.

Landrace Carolina Gold became the staple rice of the American South shortly after the American Revolution. Famously beautiful in the field and on the plate, Carolina Gold emerged at a time when culinary taste favored rice in composite dishes — pilaus, perloos, bogs, and stews — in which the ability to complement the flavors of other ingredients was paramount.

Non-aromatic rices were deemed superior to aromatic varieties in the United States. During the 20th century an aesthetic shift occurred — the perfumed rices of South Asia and India — Jasmine and Basmati enjoyed rising favor in America and world wide, particularly when rice operated as a separate side dish. Dr. Shepard wondered why couldn't Carolina Gold have an aromatic version as well as the classic non-aromatic? The conviction to create a new variety had Shepard consulting with his friend and colleague Gurdev Khush, a world-renowned rice breeder, about other beneficial features that might be introduced into a new version of Carolina Gold. The old staple rice grew rather tall and historically was vulnerable to wind damage during storms. One of the innovations of the green-revolution in rice breeding was the development of short stalk rices that were not subject to blow down. Certain of these short stalked rices possessed additional virtues — great productivity, disease resistance, and rapidity of growth — a particular benefit when crops must vie with weeds in extraction of nutrients from the soil.

Plant breeding has been an important on-going dimension of agriculture in America since the rise of the Agricultural Reform movement in the 1820s. The desire to improve the best cultivars in the field gave rise to many extraordinary creations. In the 1840s, for instance, Joshua John Ward, a rice planter, created a long-grain version of Carolina Gold, 5/12ths of an inch long, rather than the standard 3/8ths of an inch. This variety created a world sensation, during the sixteen years it was on the world market. It was lost with the Civil War. Charleston Gold is a new variety of the fabled grain, carrying on the tradition of Ward's "long grain" Gold Seed Rice.

One of the most marked advantages of Charleston Gold is its productivity. Grown conventionally, it yields 6819 pounds per acre, compared to 3745 for Charleston Gold. (One reason that rice culture suspended in South Carolina in the 1910s was that other varieties were more productive and could be grown with less cost. Taste, not productivity, inspired the variety‟s revival at the end of the 20th century). What is even more striking is its productivity under organic growing regimens — 6060 pounds per acre, from 300-500 pounds more than major aromatic varieties currently grown. This promises extraordinary utility for planting in developing countries in which traditional agriculture is widely practiced. 

Shepard and Khush began their effort in 1998. After extensive testing for grain quality and disease resistance traits, the most promising strain of Charleston Gold was dispatched to Beaumont, Texas, in 2008 where Anna McClung refined the variety to seed standard and evaluated it across a number of southern growing environments. The 2011 growing season will see its debut in commercial cultivation.