Triticum aestivum (Common Wheat) is the most important plant for man, from all aspects, undoubtedly and with no competitors. To be more precise, rice and maize do indeed compete with wheat for this dignified title, but common wheat wins. Wheat is the first of the seven kinds with which the Land of Israel was blessed. Man has been growing wheat for thousands of years, apparently beginning in the Neolithic Period, perhaps already 10,000 years ago or longer. It is assumed that the growing of wheat, and the possibility of preserving its grains from one season to another, and even from year to another, was a crucial factor that enabled man to change from a nomadic life to life in a permanent settlement. It became man’s first staple food in the Mediterranean region, later in all of Europe and Western Asia. Its use spread perhaps from Egypt to the Mediterranean Basin, and the Romans knew that man’s primary needs are “bread and circuses” and imported convoys of ships that carried wheat from across the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Thousands of wheat varieties were developed by farmers over the years, which differ from each other to a great extent. These differences are especially apparent in the traits of the spikes, the absence or presence of awns in the spike, the density of its spikelets, the height of the plant and the time of its earing. Different varieties of wheat are used for making bread, noodles, cakes, porridge (groats, semolina, wheat flakes), beer, etc. A “Green Revolution” took place in the 1960s, whose essence was the cultivation of dwarf high-yield wheat varieties. The idea of cultivating dwarf lines required a revolution in the perception of cultivation principles, and was proven to be successful. This cultivation was carried out in parallel by research teams in Mexico, and the United States, and greatly contributed to dispelling the fear of inevitable hunger (Malthus’ theory) in a world with an ever-increasing population. It is for a reason that its leader Prof. Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, such varieties are also grown in Israel, and as a result, the wheat yield per dunam has increased three-fold. In 2005 the global wheat yield reached 628,000,000 tons, and the yield in Israel was 190,000.
Wheat is a monocotyledonous annual plant. It is an erect and tall cereal from the subfamily Pooideae. It branches only from its base, and reaches a height of 60 to 150 cm. The stem is a culm made of hollow nodes. The internodes are swollen and impermeable. The leaf is composed of a tubular base that envelops the stem and is called a sheath, and a spread out and linear lamina. There is a membranous appendage called a ligule that is situated between the sheath and the lamina. There are two pilose auricles at the base of the lamina, a trait characteristic of wheat.
Common wheat blooms in Israel from March until the beginning of April, and the grains in the spikes ripen in May-June. The month of “Reaping the Wheat” is mentioned in the Gezer Calendar from the biblical period. The holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost) is set for seven weeks after “Application of a sickle on the wheat”. In other places around in the world wheat blooms at different times, and it is said that wheat ripens somewhere in the world in each month of the year. The inflorescence is a spike composed of spikelets, that sit one-by-one alternately on the axis of the spike and are tightly attached to it. The flowers are small and green, and contain 3 stamens and one pistil that splits into two feathery stigmata. The flower is built for pollination by wind, but pollination is mainly by self-pollination. The fruit is a monocotyledonous seed (grain). The main sign that differentiates domesticated wheat from wild wheat is the behavior of the spike after ripening of the seeds. In the wild plant the spike shatters into spikelets, and each of them sheds separately. This enables the wild wheat to disseminate its seeds and grow a new generation. In the domesticated plant the spike does not shatter after ripening, and this enables the farmer to collect the yield.
Common wheat is also called “soft wheat”. The grain contains approximately 80% starch and 14% protein, most of which is gluten, as well as some fat, cellulose and minerals.
Common or soft wheat is a hexaploid species, i.e. genomes of 3 different species are involved in its creation: apparently one species of the one-grain wild wheat, one species of Aegilops sharonensis (goatgrass) and one species of Aegilops cylindrica (jointed goatgrass). Hard (durum) wheat as well as wild (einkorn) wheat are tetraploid, without the Aegilops cylindrica component.
In the past, mainly hard (durum) wheat was grown in Israel, which is not suitable for baking bread because the gluten in its grains is not very stretchable, and tears during the process of rising of the dough and does not hold gas. It is used mainly for production of noodles and for baking matzos and thin flat Arab bread (pita). The yield was stored in a barn, where the product was processed by threshing. When the spikes dried, they were threshed with a flail harnessed to a donkey or bull. The flail is a broad wooden board with row upon row of flint or iron blades. The animal walked on the piles of grains and the flail threshed and separated the spikes from the stems. The mixed material was scattered in the wind, the light (and unnecessary – chaff) material blew in the wind and the grains fell to ground free of the chaff.
Only soft wheat is grown in Israel today by modern agricultural means. Growing is entirely automated: sowing is performed with a seeding machine combined with fertilization, weeds are destroyed by spraying with hormonal preparations, reaping is performed with a “Combine” that reaps, threshes, separates the grains from the chaff and loads the product onto a truck. Some of the areas in Israel are given supplementary irrigation when necessary, according to the rain regime of that year.
Growing wheat is an important and profitable agricultural industry in Israel today.
See also the entry “Wild wheat” and the article “On the Discovery of Wild Wheat” in the collection of articles.
Written by Mike Livne with the help of Uri Kushnir