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Abundant Future: Cultivating Diversity in Garden, Farm, and Field


Emmer Wheat

Triticum dicoccon

I became interested in the history of wheat as a food crop while I was in graduate school earning a degree in plant science, and taking a course in ethnobotany. This exhibition’s theme, Abundant Future, which is so relevant to concerns about how to sustainably provide for a rapidly growing global population, rekindled my interest in understanding the importance of wheat as one of the world’s primary food sources. I delved back into learning about different wheat species, their uses today, and their potential for the future.

Wheat has a long, complex and fascinating history. Evidence shows that ancient wheat species, such as emmer, einkorn, spelt and Khorasan, have been cultivated for at least 10,000 years. I chose to focus on emmer wheat, (also referred to as farro) because it is considered an underutilized crop, and deserving of wider cultivation. It is high in fiber, protein and other nutrients and has a nutty flavor and chewy texture.

In planning a painting for the exhibition I decided, of course, that I would grow my own crop. In addition to being fun, it would allow me to study the plants closely. However, I’m not exactly a farmer. Having had no experience growing wheat, I decided I had better “cover my bases” to ensure I would have enough subjects with which to work. In early 2019 I located a seed source and ordered a “few” packets. It turns out there are a lot of seeds in a one ounce packet of emmer wheat. No matter! Plenty to work with! Options! Not knowing quite what to expect in terms of germination rates and best growing conditions I decided on a four pronged strategy: starting some seeds indoors in late winter where I could coddle them, and then transplant outdoors later in the spring, (okay, not exactly a large-scale agricultural method, but, hey, this was base covering); sowing a crop directly in the ground in my flower garden in Pennsylvania; also in Pennsylvania sowing a crop in a large outdoor container where I would have a better chance of guarding it against critters; and then, one hardiness zone further south, growing it in a container at our weekend house in Maryland. Not being there every day to watch over things, I decided a container crop at that location would be sensible.

Needless to say along the way I learned lessons a real farmer already knows. First, that the germination rate for emmer wheat is very good! In all four situations I had sown far more seeds than I needed, and had sowed them much too densely. No matter! Just thin them out! The plants growing in the garden were looking particularly good, so I thinned the crop and with great satisfaction watched as they grew. Until, that is, a few weeks later, when the young man who cuts our lawn informed me that while he was trimming he saw a “weird grass” in the flower bed, so he did me a favor, and whacked it down. It seems “critters” come in all forms. One crop gone. No matter! I had my back-ups! But for the crop started indoors I just couldn’t provide high enough light levels to a species that requires eight hours of full sun every day. I had suspected this would be a problem, but it had been worth a shot as a “base coverer.” The plants tried their darnedest, but they were weak and spindly, so I abandoned them – crop number two down. The plants in Maryland grew well, but I never did get around to thinning them out. Oops. They had to duke it out for sunlight, water and nutrients, so were not ideal specimens for a painting – crop number three eliminated. Luckily, I had crop four, which had benefited from getting proper attention from its farmer, and produced lots of beautiful plants. At every phase of development I had plenty of specimens I could pull out to examine, draw, dissect, use for color studies, and photograph.

Of all the phases of growth I found the unripe green kernels, with their bluish bloom, dangling yellow anthers, and gradual transition through purples and golds as the spikes ripened, to be the most visually inspiring. I decided my painting would be a single ripening stalk at five times actual size in order to better capture the small details that are visible under magnification, such as the fine silica barbs along each awn. Incorporating the twisting, drying leaf enabled me to introduce a graceful element to contrast with the spiky, upright form of the seed head.

The entire project was very engaging for well over a year and included other interesting explorations, but those are stories for another time.


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Read more about this artist’s work: 22nd Annual

Abundant Future-mintun-emmerwheat

Triticum dicoccon

Emmer Wheat

Watercolor on paper

27-1/2 x 15 inches

©2020 Susan Mintun

2024 ASBA - All rights reserved

All artwork copyrighted by the artist. Copying, saving, reposting, or republishing of artwork prohibited without express permission of the artist.

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