A Compendium of Traditional Grains of the Coastal South

written by David Shields

In 2004 the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation formed to renew the agriculture that gave rise to the rice-centered cuisine of the Lowcountry from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida.  The revival of the cereals stood at the center of the work the Foundation undertook — not just the rice, but the biscuit wheat, the whiskey rye, the high-power oats bred for race horses, and meal, sweet, and flint corns. 

We sought the enduring staples — the row crops whose virtues were so profound that they remained in use for generations. In 2004 we did not know what those enduring grains were, aside from Carolina Gold Rice. Research in 19th-century agricultural journals gave us an outline that served as a guide to restoration in 2006-2007. Yet our picture of the full scheme of cereal production did not come into final focus until 2013-14. 

Now that we stand within reach of returning every single historic cultivar in that scheme, it is time to present an overview of the entire plan of cereal culture in the coastal South.


Carolina White Rice, 1680s-present — landrace South Asian white rice, the sister of Carolina Gold, perhaps an out mutation. Emerges as a separate variety in the early 19th century and supplants the less productive and robust Madagascar White Rice planted in South Carolina since the 1690s. A non-aromatic rice, it is still grown in South America by descendants of the Confederados who took it to the Amazon basin after leaving the South in the wake of the Confederacy’s defeat. EXTANT. 

Carolina Gold Rice, [Gold Seed] 1786-present — landrace South Asian non-aromatic rise of singular culinary quality.  Named after gold husk that sheathed the grain. The dominant crop rice and primary culinary rice of the Carolina Rice Kitchen. Ceased commercial production because of cost in 1919. Revived commercially by the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation 2006. REVIVED 1986

Carolina Long Gold, 1845-1861 — natural mutation of Carolina Gold discovered on Brookgreen Plantation in 1843. Grain nearly 7/16ths of an inch long. Awarded the Great Gold medal in London and Paris Expositions of the 1850s. Highest priced rice on the world grain market in the 1850s.  Extinct because of collapse of seed support during the Civil War. 



Upland Red Bearded Rice, [Moruga Hill Rice] 1789-1910 — A dry culture African Rice secured at the port of Conakry in Guinea, West Africa, in 1789 by Captain Nathaniel Cutting and distributed through Thomas Jefferson’s botanical circles through the South. Enslaved Africans, too, may have transmitted forms of this rice to the Lowcountry in the 18th century. Used as a provision rice by enslaved Africans and a local market crop rice by yeoman farmers in the southern Piedmont throughout the 19th century. Driven off the landscape in the early 20th century by cheap Honduran and South Asian rice. Survived in Trinidad where the Merikins, ex-Lowcountry Gullah Geechee residents of the sea islands who joined the British Army during the War of 1812 trusting its promised of liberation and resettlement. RECOVERED 2016

White May Wheat, [White Lammas Wheat] 1670s-1820s — North European Wheat noted for its ability to mill into light colored flour. The communion bread/wafer wheat of north Europe brought to Anglo-America in the beginning of the colonial period. Genetically crashed in the South in the 1820s, but a strain shipped out from Virginia to the Pacific Northwest in the 1810s kept the variety viable until collected in 1910s by a USDA plant collector. Revived by Richard and Don Scheuerman of Palouse Colony Farm, Edison, Wash., collaborating with Dr. Steve Jones, WSU. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and historical sites in the Southeast were supplied the variety by Palouse Colony Farm for grow out. Other strains of the White communion wheats survived as well. A strain brought to America by the Spanish and planted in conjunction with the missions survives a White Sonoran Wheat. A strain conveyed to the West Coast via Australia in the mid 19th century survives as old Blue Stem white winter wheat. REVIVED 2010

Purple Straw Wheat, [Blue Stem Wheat] 1760s-1970s — Landrace soft winter wheat, the original biscuit, cake flour, and whisky wheat of the South. Because of its short growing season it avoided the destruction wrought by most grain insects and rust disease. It was grown in parts of the South in quantity until the 1970s when it was supplanted by more productive varieties. It remained in cultivation among some Amish groups. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation brought it back into cultivation in 2015 and is currently engaged in the bulking up of seed.  REVIVED 2015

Red May Wheat, 1800-present — A productive and drought tolerant landrace that came to prominence in Virginia at the outset of the 19th century. A red chaff, short straw winter wheat, it was esteemed for its reliability. An "in between" wheat, meaning, according to season and weather, it can be brought to bread strength or pastry strength. It is the defining wheat for laminating and crisping in biscuit culture of the South. Grown across the South and in the Midwest until the roller milling revolution which eliminated "in-between" wheats. Nowadays greatly admired by certain bakers.  EXTANT

Mediterranean Wheat, [Red Bearded Flint] — Southern mills had difficulty producing quality flour from the flinty red grains of Mediterranean Wheat. Still, its short growing season, resistance to rust and pests, and its robustness in the field turned many Southerners toward it. There is substantial debate about when the variety went into cultivation in America, with dates ranging from 1800 to 1839. Like all flint wheats, a substantial portion was planted as Spring wheat. Millers found processing the grain a challenge requiring careful calibration of the mill stones. Still, the density of starch makes it an extremely healthful and desirable variety despite the challenges in processing. The long, red, bearded berries were distinctive. EXTANT, IN CULTIVATION

Madeira Hard Wheat, [Durum bread wheat] 1690s-1800 — Secured by the first colonists of South Carolina who desired to grow a heat tolerant bread wheat, the Madeira hard wheat had the advantage of being from a Southern locale. The importation of flour eventually put an end to the attempt to grow bread wheat in coastal South Carolina. The German settlers of Orangeburg grew winter wheats. Fortunately a number of Madeira landraces survive, including the beardless variety that is the most like candidate for the one imported into the colonies.  2018 RESTORATION

Sicilian Bread Wheat, [Timilia Durum Wheat] — The Salzburgers, an Austrian community of Protestant dissenters, settled in a district northwest of Savannah in Georgia in the second quarter of the 18th century. In the 1740s they erected three mills and began processing grain. Superb bakers (probably the best in the colonial South), they used their religious network in Europe to secure durum wheat seed from Sicily. The Salzburgers were famed for the quality of their produce and baked goods. The community did not survive the disruptions of the American Revolution in Georgia. 2018 RESTORATION

Spelt, 1740s-present — Triticum spelta an ancient hybrid of emmer and goat grass, spelt has been a domesticated grain for 8,000 years in the Middle East and was the dominant form of wheat in ancient Greece. It remained a standard cultivar in parts of Germany, Spain, and middle Europe until the rise of crop science. It was part of field systems in colonial North America wherever Germanic settlement was consequential. Yet it was never a dominant crop in the South and was often confused by Anglo-Americans with darnel and believed to be a degeneration of wheat. Grown as a Spring wheat in areas where wheat midge and other insects extensively damaged standard wheat varieties, the grain hulls were so close and compact that it inhibited pest predation. Containing less gluten than other wheat varieties, it was often admixed with regular wheat flour in bread formulae. Grown in Orangeburg, S.C., and Ebenezer, Ga., during the 1800s. EXTANT

Emmer, [faro, cone wheat] — With spiked awns, rough hulls, squarish sets of grain on its panicles, and coarse straw. Suited to clay and volcanic soils, it was among the more robust forms of wheat.  Cultivated in Britain in areas where clay soils made other wheat varieties languish, it was brought over as one of the subsidiary grains during colonial times, but did not see extensive cultivation. It became the object of experimentation throughout the United States in the 1830s, when a scheme of suiting grain to soil type became a project of experimental cultivators. While associated with Jewish settlements in the New World, the Ladinos who settled in the American South were not greatly involved in agriculture. EXTANT

Bere Barley, 1730-1850 — A six row barley originally cultivated in Scotland and brought to British America during the colonial era, this short season grain was grown as a summer crop in northern Europe, but a winter crop in the South. A landrace used for bannocks and other breads in Scotland, it was used primarily in brewing in the 18th-century Virginia and North Carolina. Supplanted in the 1850s by Spanish, or Barcelona, Barley. Seed barley began being grown and improved in South Carolina in the early 1850s. Revived by Richard and Don Scheuerman of Palouse Colony Farm, Edison, Wash., collaborating with Dr. Steve Jones, WSU. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and historical sites in the southeast were supplied the variety by Palouse Colony Farm from germplasm secured in Scotland for grow out.  EXTANT, PLANTED SC & KY 2016

Seashore Black Seed Rye, 1800 to present — A tall growing heat tolerant and drought resistant rye, this landrace grain was the one grain that was certain to make on marginal lands. A winter crop, it became important forage for Southern livestock, a wind break, a source of good straw, and a grain for brewing, distilling, and baking.  RECOGNIZED 2016. EXTANT.

Southern Mountain Rye, 1730s-1930s — A tall-growying grey-tan (blondish) rye that was cultivated in marginal lands in the southern up country. This was the original southern rye whiskey rye. Subject of an intensive hunt.  AS YET UNRECOVERED.

Virginia Grey Oats, [Winter Turf Oats] 1750s-1930s — Landrace grey oats planted in autumn for winter growing and Spring harvest or pasturage. A landrace first grown in Virginia in the first half of the 18th century, they have a prostrate habit of growth when young. One of the two parent strains (the other being Rustless Red, a variety derived from Mexico in the 1840s) grown in the South as Winter Oats. Because of its importance as a genetic resource, the variety has been maintained to the present day. EXTANT, DUE FOR REVIVAL 2018-19. 

Old English Black Oats, [Huguenot Black Oats] 1680s-present — Grown to feed horses, the old European black oats were grown in the Piedmont South in large quantity, and indeed, survived among farmers in the backcountry into the 21st century when Glenn Roberts collected it. Not as prolific or disease resistant as the Black Tartarian Oat, it was, nonetheless, a landrace high in protein that gave race horses great energy.  REVIVAL 2010

White Barley Oat, [Potato Oats] 1788-1920s — A sport white oat found in a potato field in Cumberland, UK, in 1788, the potato oat became a dominant crop oat in the English speaking world during the first half of the 19th century. Agronomists by the late 1860s reckoned that hundreds of millions of bushels of Potato oats had been produced all descended from a single plant. [“The Potato Oat,” Lake Superior Miner (July 18, 1868), 4].  “The grain is white, short, and very heavy; straw very slender, liable to lodge; and the grain is rather apt to be shaken off by the winds, or in harvesting: (“Different Varieties of Oats,” Vermont Journal (March 22, 1833)] Though the straw was slender, it was sufficiently short to avoid the worst effects in storms and its quality was deemed good. The potato oat was high in protein, productive (70-75 grains per head — 50 bushels an acre in most circumstances — 46 lbs weight per bushel), and well loved by livestock, although the skin was so hard in some Reporter (May 2, 1849), 1].  Because the oat lacked an awn, it was easy to process.  Four bushels of seed were needed per acre to produce a crop.  Excellent human food.  REVIVAL 2018

Skinless Oat, [Naked Oat, Hull-less Oat] 1680s-present — An ancient European landrace, the Skinless Oat was called the Peelcorn in the 18th century and was thought to be the original “bread corn” of the British Isles by some agricultural historians. It is mentioned in John Gerard’s famous English herbal of 1597. [“Skinless Oats,” The Genesee Farmer (Feb. 4 1832), 33]. Its principal virtue was its field hardiness, its great liability, a tendency to shed grain before fully ripe.  It was, perhaps, the least productive variety of oat in terms of grain in general cultivation in 19th-century America, yet it generated ample straw. During the 1830s it was imported by several American cultivators, each time with a specious origin tale — among its origins China and Siberia were cited locales. It does grow in China, but it appears in notices from the 18th century onward in Anglo-America. Its great attraction was its ease in milling, for the husk separated easily from the grain, like wheat. It produced about 30 bushels per acres and had an unfortunate susceptibility to smut. Yet it provided to be very high in protein when chemical analyses began being performed. EXTANT, CULTIVATED 2008

Sea Island White Flint Corn, Prehistoric-present — The various strains of white flint corn in North America were originally associated with Native fishing cultures, and the corn pairs extraordinarily well with seafood. On the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia, it became a provision corn of the Gullah and Saltwater Geechee peoples, a staple of nutrition, during the 19th century.  Yielding 15 to 25 bushels and acre, depending on soil conditions, and fertilizer schemes. Like other ancient varieties, it bore one ear per stalk normally, and two ears under optimum conditions. it never had the productivity to be a market corn. Its quality as human food inhibited its adoption as a feed corn. Despite its extraordinary culinary quality, it ceased being grown extensively in the 1910s, supplanted by more productive, easier to mill, and less finicky improved dent varieties. In 1862 a reporter in the Beaufort district described White Flint Corn as very nutritious and white as snow when cooked, he even went as far as claiming this corn much superior to the common varieties (“Beaufort District: Past, Present, and Future,” The Continental Monthly 1 (1862), p. 383-84.) According to the Royal Horticultural Society, by the 1860s, White Flint Corn was considered the most delicate for table use and the most valuable in every respect. It was recorded being perfectly ripe at the end of September (Journal of Horticulture and Practical Gardening 19 (1870), p. 511). Ears came into Europe in the mid-19th century, winning prizes at the Paris Exposition, and entering into cultivation schemes in southern France and Italy. REVIVED 2012

Jimmy Red Corn, 1870s-present — The Lowcountry’s strain of the ancient Appalachian eight-row red dent landrace, the oil quality and starch of this corn have long been recognized for the quality of its meal and its utility in whiskey making. Brought into the Lowcounty from upland Georgia after the Civil War, its seed was preserved by Ted Chewning.  EXTANT, REVIVED 2013

White Gourd Seed Corn, 1780s-present — A landrace white dent corn famous for its flat grains on a thin cob, gourd seed corn with a Piedmont staple, revered for milling and the quality of white meal it produced. Preserved both in Virginia and Georgia, it has been adopted by a number of millers of heirloom corn. Some consider it the ideal corn for white cornbread meal. Also one of the corn varieties, along with Hickory King, employed by distillers. REVIVED 2005

Yellow Guinea Flint Corn. A form of the classic small cob short season yellow-orange Cuban Flint corn that spread from that island into the American Southeast in pre-colonial times. Originally a single ear per stalk landrace, oral tradition holds that it crossed the Atlantic and that African growers improved the strain so that as many as eight ears might grow on a single stock. Not to be confused with Guinea Corn (sorghum bicolor v. African white) In the 19th century, all long season maize had companion early maize that wouldn't cross because of days to pollination, but would fill "holes" due to germination skips in fields of long season corns. Guinea Flint was this companion corn. No wasted growing space in this cultivation scheme. REVIVED 2010

Stowell’s Evergreen Sweet Corn.  Sweet corn came into the American field system after 1779 when Lt. John Bagnal secured several cobs of Papoon corn from a camp of the Six Nations that the American Army occupied. It was improved into a crop corn called Old Colony by the end of the 18th century. This was cultivated in pockets of the South, around Augusta, Georgia, and Raleigh, N.C., in the 1820s. The sweetness of this corn variety did not keep long after ripeness.  Corn breeding sought a sweet corn that could stay in the field after ripening without degeneration. In 1848 Nathan Stowell of Burlington NJ hit upon a solution: cross Old Colony with Menomy soft corn — you’d get a seven-foot stalk bearing two ears with nine-inch cobs bearing 16 to 20 rows of longish kernels that could retain its ‘green corn taste’ in the field or in the kitchen longer than any sweet corn. For this reason it was named Stowell’s Evergreen sweet corn, and it remained the dominant sweet corn in the United States from 1850 to 1958 when supplanted by Silver Queen. From 1850 onward Stowell’s Evergreen was grown throughout the South, often as a garden patch corn.  EXTANT & IN CULTIVATION.




Buckwheat, 1700-present — While the northeast was the great producers of buckwheat in 18th and 19th century America, Virginia, Kentucky, and the midlands of North and South Carolina took up this short-season crop in the early 19th century. Because it could grow on poor soils, did not require extensive fertilization, and could be grown without loss of productivity in the same field for multiple years, it became the subject of much farmer experimentation in the 1820s and 1830s.  Often co-cropped with rye or turnips (it was thought to inhibit turnip fly), and operating in succession with corn in rotation schemes, buckwheat, once in the planting scheme became a congenial crop — good cover, supportive of pollinators, excellent green manure, and worthwhile forage. Even when nitrogen fertilizers became widespread in use, buckwheat remained a fixture, particularly where soil was marginal. No particular variety was ever designated in the early 19th century, until the black tartarian buckwheats (called Japanese buckwheat) were introduced in the 1870s. Groats from white Fagopyrum esculentum were milled for flour and contributed the well loved buckwheat cake to the table.  EXTANT

Broom Corn Millet, Panicum miliaceum was a colonial era cultivar with multiple uses. As the name suggests the plant was split into brooms; the reddish seed heads were a valuable source of livestock feed; and in the upland South, the seeds were distilled into whiskey.  While not a major article for human consumption, important for the feed systems. NOT CURRENTLY PART OF RESTORATION SCHEME.

Guinea Corn, (White Millet, African White Sorghum) — In form, similar to Broom Corn, yet with a whitish seed head, the seeds naked. Tillering extensively, guinea corn bore a seed head atop every of its multiple stalks. The seed heads are very white and compact. ... It is very good for table use in lieu ofrice or small hominy, and is the best food for poultry."  [“Guinea Corn,” American Farmer (May 2, 1823), 7]. An African diaspora food, it was taken up by the Agricultural Society of South Carolina in 1823 in rotations in which cowpeas, guinea corn, maize, and potatoes were grown in succession. A particularly large version of this strain was brought into South Carolina from South African in 1855, under the name Enyama Imphee.  REVIVED 2015