Sunday, February 10, 2013

The animated oat

The animated oat is an annual grass that can grow over 1 metre in height. It is very common in disturbed ground flowering from March to May. It is commonly known as ħafur but technically it is referred to as ħafur kbir to distinguish it from ħafur żgħir. This is a very similar species with smaller spikelet known in English as the bearded oat. 

It is also very common in the Maltese islands. It grows in similar habitats but has a longer flowering period as it is in flower from February to June. Both species can be found throughout the Mediterranean.

Other species of oats are found growing wild in the Maltese countryside but these are so similar that they are difficult to distinguish.

The oats are a genus of 10 to 15 species of grasses native to Europe, Asia and northwest Africa. One species is widely cultivated elsewhere and several have become naturalised in many parts of the world. All oats have edible seeds, though they are small and hard to harvest in most species. 

One species known as the common oat is cultivated for its seeds. While oats are suitable for human consumption as oatmeal and rolled oats which are used in some kinds of porridge, they are more commonly used as livestock feed. Oats make up a large part of the diet of horses and are often fed to cattle as well.
“Sowing wild oats” is a phrase used since at least the 16th century. Apparently, a similar expression was used in Roman times. 

The origin of the expression is the fact that wild oats are a major weed in oat farming. Among European cereal grains, oats are hardest to tell apart from their weed relatives, which look almost alike but yield little grain. In former times these could be kept at bay only by checking one’s oat plants one by one and hand-weeding the wild ones when they were in flower but if the plant had already produced seeds this would be a totally futile exercise. 

The phrase eventually was used with reference to the sexual liaisons of an unmarried young man, possibly resulting in pregnancy because of the invigorating properties of the oat grain.

This article was published in The Times on 3 June 2009.

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