On the History of Southern Winter Wheats--White May, Purple Straw, and Red May Wheats


David S. Shields

The American Revolution set in motion a number of developments that would cause the eclipse of the old settler wheats of the colonial era—yellow lammas and Old English White—and the rise of a trio of wheats that would dominate grain cultivation in the early republic—early white wheat (Isbell’s forward, white May wheat, rare ripe), purple straw Wheat (blue stem, mountain purple straw, early purple straw), and red may wheat (Red Wheat).

War disrupted seed production, leading to a scramble for wheat seed in the 1780s procured from every possible source.  Second, the war saw the introduction of a major pest, the Hessian Fly reportedly conveyed in the straw bedding of Hessian hired soldiers with the British Army, but just as likely to have come with English supplies.  It appeared first on Long Island in 1784, and in eastern Virginia in 1785.  It spread across New York and New England, and the eastern seaboard, traversing Virginia by 1798.  The Fly had fall and Spring hatching cycles. It infested young wheat stunting its growth, inducing straw collapse and inhibiting grain formation.  Finding seed not infected by the fly, and that sprouted at times when the larval flies were not active became the foremost agronomic aims of wheat growers in the early United States

Planting times later in autumn and harvest times earlier in Spring (late May or early June) became the keys to a wheat’s ability to make a bankable harvest.  The first of the early wheats was discovered in Carolina County Virginia by Henry Isbell III in 1787.  He sent away for a batch of white wheat seed from a merchant.  (In the years after the Revolution mercantile grocers handled much of the seed business in the United States.). “When his wheat was in flower,  [he] observed a single early almost ripe.  Hence he conceived an idea it might be a different species.  To determine this, he carefully preserved the wheat produced by this solitary ear, which has now multiplied to such a degree, as that several thousand bushels will be produced at the next harvest, having been distributed into many hands.”{“An account of a new species of wheat,” General Advertiser (May 4, 1794), 1.

The new wheat had a number of striking qualities:


1.      “This wheat ripens from 15 to 20 days earlier than any other”

2.     “The straw is short by one third, than that of any other kind”

3.     “The straw is encumbered by very little fodder”

Isbell’s wheat became known as “forward wheat” or “Virginia early wheat” because of the first quality; it’s short stature gained it a following because it minimized lodging (the blow down of grain in storms—a problem with tall grains).  But the greatest consequences of these attributes were that it escaped the infestation cycle of the Hessian Fly and it also evaded infection by the dreaded disease, rust. By 1796 Isbell’s seed was being shipped across the United States. Agricola of New York reported in 1800, on a comparative planting of Virginia early and red chaff:  “The Virginia wheat ripened ten days earlier than the other, its straw was one fifth less in height, and scarcely on half in bulk.  The berry was yellow, hard, large, plump and handsome.  That of the red-chaff wheat was shrunk, and did not yield more than half of the quantity of Virginia wheat on the same space of ground.”  Agricola calculated the Virginia yield at 42 bushels an acre. He planted on November 3.  [To the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, The Monthly Magazine (May 1800), 328.]

Virginia’s great agronomist John Taylor of Carolina County in 1818 summarized its virtues and pointed out a signal liability:  “Isbell Wheat.  There are two varieties of this species bearded and unbearded.  .  .  .  Having cultivated both for many years, I have preferred the bearded for very slight reasons.  .  .  .  The characters of both are 1st. Great forwardness.—2nd. A liability once in 20 years to be injured but not destroyed by frost.—3rd. To produce every year a few black rotted heads, which do not injure the other wheat or materially effect the crop. 4th.  To be far less liable to rust than any latter species.—5th.  It requires strong land and produced on poor, worse crops than late wheats,-- 6th.  It is hard wheat to get out. 7th. It makes very fine flour.  8th. It is one fourth lower than late wheats.  I have for many years partly cultivated it.  The high repute it once had, has diminished as lands have grown poorer. 

Taylor pointed out the great problem taking place in Virginia: extractive farming (the planting of staple crops in the same fields without rotations for successive years) was leaching soil of its nutriments.  Certain grains were more sensitive to this depletion than others.  Isbell’s early wheat (which began to be called White May wheat in the 1800),[1] suffered the greatest decline in productivity.  Rather than emend the soil  (the geoponic crisis would not influence southern farmers’ field practices until the mid-1820s).  A farmer from Orange County, Virginia, told what happened in 1817:  “The old White Wheat cultivated by our Fathers yielded to the forward May Wheat—that lasted a few years and the Baltimore bearded expelled it.  The latter in turn gave place the purple straw.” A Farmer, Orange, Richmond Enquirer (July 8, 1817), 4.

Planting staple grains in fields repeatedly until nutrition was stripped was only one dimension of the problem.  The amount of wheat being grown in the upper South exploded in the 1790s as tobacco gave way to small grains.  In 1796 an observer noted, “double the number of acres are now put down to wheat that were four years ago; and, on account of the extraordinary propitiousness of this season, it is expected that she will turn into market nearly double the quantity this year that she did last.”  New York Herald (July 27, 1796), 1.  Expansion of acreage and mono-cropping wheat gave rise to a host of problems: the accelerating spread of Hessian Fly, outbreaks of rust disease (in 1800), smut, and mildew. 


Rust, a fungal disease caused by Pucinnia triticina-black leaf rust, or Pucinnia striiformis-yellow leaf rust, could cause anywhere from 20 to 50% crop loss.  “In wheat ripening by the 12th of June the rust scarcely ever makes its appearance; when it ripens later than the 20th it seldom escapes.” .”.   From the 1790 onward only two wheats dependably ripened before the outbreak: “ the old white May wheat, and the early purple straw.  They came to the scythe in a very few days of each other, the former being a little the earlier of the two.  The white May was sometimes cut in the last week of May; generally the first week in June, scarcely ever later than the 10th.  It was, without doubt, the most perfect wheat ever grown in this climate, making a flour superior to any manufactured in these days, and often weighing sixty-six pounds to the bushel.  It was also very productive on rich land, frequently yielding upwards of thirty bushes to the acre.  The purple straw was equally productive, perhaps rather more so, and weighed well.” S., “Petersburg Letter,” Richmond Dispatch (October 17, 1868), 5. 

A beardless soft red wheat that grows erectly atop stiff straw that colors from dark red to purple to blue when the grain achieves the dough stage, Purple Straw Wheat was developed in the Virginia Piedmont at about the time of the American Revolution.  “The blue stem or purple straw originated in Fauquier county, having been distinguished in its growth by a Mr. [Robert] Embrey.  Not being particularly acquainted with the facts in detail, I would beg leave to refer to the gentlemen living the neighborhood of Embry’s family—among others, are gen. John Blackwell, John C. Scott, and William Shuke, Esqrs and others, near the Falmouth post office.” Fauquier, “Mssrs, Gales & Seaton,” National Intelligencer (July 1, 1817), 1. 

What variety of wheat Embrey was improving is difficult to determine.  Gina Brown-Guedira, the USDA’s small grain geneticist for the southeast has noted genetic similarities to North African Spring wheats.  What can be said without equivocation is that enough seed was circulating in Virginia in 1790 for agronomist John Taylor to make an extensive comparative grow-out of the variety to test productivity: “On the 10th July, 1790, a crop of wheat of 110 loads, the purple straw red wheat chiefly, was hauled home and secure in houses and stacks . . . . The load was estimated at fifteen bushels, giving for the crop 1650 bushels.  In the month of December following . . . the produce proved to be thus—White wheat 495 bushels, purple straw red wheat 1144, making a total of 1639 bushels; exhibiting minus eleven bushels only.  The land from which this crop was raised was 66 acres of fallow and 40 of corn ground, planted in the order of 4 feet by 6, two stalks to a hill; the wide rows always in the direction of N. and S. for the advantage of seeding without digging up the corn crop.” Arator [John Taylor], “Indian Corn vs. Wheat,” Alexandria Gazette (June 11, 1818), 1. 

It is an open question whether the Red Straw Wheat seed that Georgie W. P. Custis sold from Mount Vernon in July of 1800 and 1801 was actually Purple Straw and not the English red straw.  His commendation of the variety for “suiting the most indifferent soils better than the generality of Wheat,” sounds much like the advantage that Purple Straw held over Isbell’s early White.  “Red Straw Wheat,” Gazette of the United States (August 4, 1801), 3.

Purple Straw’s ability to thrive on marginal soils, it’s ability to evade rust, its earliness, its productivity, and the quality of its flour, made it the field preference for farmers in parts of the South throughout the 19th century and into the twentieth.  Numbers of times rival wheats were put forward by farmers with the aim of supplanting purple straw’s place—Lawler wheat, Hunton Wheat, Maryland-Pennsylvania Yellow Bearded—and all failed.  It found strong champions—Edmund Ruffin, the agriculturist and editor, spent the 1830s improving the seed.  He explained why no other wheat could supplant it:  “We prefer the mountain purple straw to any other kind of wheat, and sow of it altogether; not on account of its being considered more productive, but because its peculiar disadvantages may be obviated by using proper care, and it will better withstand the dangers which no care can guard against.  Its great advantage consists in the ripe grain being able to bear more exposure to wet weather, than any white, or bearded red wheat: and where we make large crops out wheat is exposed in the field from the beginning of reaping to the end of thrashing.  Besides this important ground for preference, this kind of wheat is heavier than the bearded, and makes better flour.” Indeed, for yielding flour, it is said by some of the most experienced millers to be inferior to no other kind—though the flour of white wheat sells better, merely because it is of a purer white.” Edmund Ruffin, Farmer’s Register (October 1835), 382.  Ruffin’s efforts insured that enough Purple Straw seed was dispersed throughout the South that the disruptions of seed production in the South caused by the Civil War would not imperil the variety.  The White May would, in contrast, suffer.  

The multiplication of pest and pathogen pressures over the first half of the 19th century set farmers experimenting.  New wheat strains were imported from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  Planting different kinds of wheat side by side and “crossing” wheat—selecting out mutations—and by the mid century—intentionally breeding wheat for specific traits.  The most important southern breeding initiative involved crossing the landrace yellow lammas with White May to create Red May Wheat. 

The yellow lammas (old lamme, or red lammas) was an English landrace that had a short red berry and produced yellowish flour.  It had the liability of coming to maturity at times when rust plagued southern fields.  Crossing it with Isbell’s Early White May Wheat gave rise to Red May sometime between 1825 and 1830 near Amelia, Virginia.  It had features of both—the sensitivity to soil quality, short stature,  and earliness of the White May, the short head, coloration, and plump berry of the yellow lammas.  Agronomist James Killibrew gave a portrait of the wheat after it had been in general cultivation for a quarter century:  “This is a most excellent variety, but varies very much in yield.  On the alluvial bottoms it will give 20 to 25 bushels, while on rich up lands 10 to 12 bushels per acres is considered a good yield.  It has a short head, short straw, small berry. . . . It is not much liable to any of the diseases to which wheat is heir.  It is a very certain crop, though not the heaviest.  It does not tiller well, and hence must be sown thicker than the usual kinds.  [Wheat Culture in Tennessee, (Nashville: The America Company, 1877), 253.

The popularity of Red May Wheat arose from virtues not immediately apparent in its two parent strains: extraordinary drought tolerance and great cold tolerance.  An 1843 letter to the Southern Planter attested to Red May’s resilience and won the wheat general admiration including its adoption by the Shaker communities in the South as their standard winter wheat in the antebellum period.  [“Red May Wheat,” Southern Planter (October 1843), 236.]

White May, Purple Straw Wheat, and Red May Wheat were direct responses to the rise of a new set of field conditions that prevailed in the upper South after the American Revolution.  Each possessed virtues that kept it long in cultivation despite the introduction of foreign wheat varieties that promised well:  Canadian white Flint Wheat, Mediterranean Wheat, Yellow Bearded Wheat.  All would survive into the 21st century and have become the linchpins for restored southern heirloom winter wheat. 






[1] The first use of “May Wheat” to designate Isbell’s forward white wheat took place in  “Extract of a letter from Manchester, Virginia dated June 12, 1800,” New-York Gazette (June 26, 1800), 2.