Wheat is the third-most-popular crop in the US. It's also a grass. But unlike many grasses, it's not a perennial. This is a real pain.
Because it’s an annual, every year wheat is planted, grown to its harvest stage, harvested, and then the entire crop must be ripped out and re-seeded. This makes for a lot of work and can also churn up the soil in a way that can impede its ability to hold nutrients and to prevent erosion. But a perennial variety of wheat has been nothing more than a dream for many decades.
However, researchers at Washington State University think they might have come up with a solution: a wheat-wheatgrass hybrid they’re calling Salish Blue. Wheat is related to wheatgrass, but not very closely; three genomes mark the difference between the two plants, which makes hybridization difficult. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying: as far back as 1903, scientists were attempting to cross-breed the two.
Salish Blue, named for the blueish tint of its seeds (normal wheat seeds are white or reddish), is most definitely still in its infancy. Much of the efforts of the paper announcing it are regarding nomenclature—in other words, how to name something that’s a hybrid wild-domestic crop. But some Washington farmers are already attempting to grow it. NPR spoke to a farmer who called it “a goofy-looking thing,” due to its excessive height (up to five feet tall)—modern crop wheat is almost entirely a variety known as “dwarf wheat,” which grows, at most, two feet tall. (Since wheat is harvested for its seeds and not its body, the height is mostly irrelevant, and tall plants may even be a hindrance.)
And while Salish Blue isn’t yet a significant crop, the researchers are hoping that this oddball could have huge benefits. The labor hours it could save, and the protection of soil it could provide, make the dream of perennial wheat a persistent one.