Nature Bulletin No. 364-A January 10, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
The Biblical saying, "All flesh is grass", is food for thought.
Civilization depends on agriculture; and agriculture, fundamentally,
depends upon the seeds of grasses that were originally wild:
principally wheat, rice and corn; to a lesser extent upon barley, rye,
oats and millet, These are the cereal grains that feed us. The seeds,
stems and leaves of these and other grasses also sustain the animals
upon which we depend for meat.
Millet and, later, barley were apparently the first grains to be
cultivated but civilization really arrived, probably 10, 000 years ago,
when man learned how to grow wheat. He learned how to make bread,
the staff of life. About the same time, in southeastern Asia, he learned
how to cultivate rice and boil it for food. To lessen his labor, he
invented the plow, the wheel and the cart. Here in the western
hemisphere he domesticated maize, which we call corn. Until those
times the land would not support relatively dense populations nor the
central cities that advanced the progress of civilization.
Today, about half of the world's population lives primarily upon rice.
Because of its high yield per acre it supports densities of population as
great as from 1000 to 2000 people per square mile -- for example,
along the Malabar Coast of southwestern India. For millions it is the
chief dish, if not the only dish, at every meal. The Filipino, for
instance, not only eats rice but thinks rice, with special rituals for
every phase of its cultivation and processing.
In contrast to wheat, rice originated in a tropical, very rainy, marshy
country. It is the only important food plant grown in water, although
some upland "dry" varieties have been developed. Apparently, all
cultivated rice comes from a single species which has been found
growing wild in southern China and the Dutch East Indies. Today
there are more than 2400 varieties including about 1000 in India alone
-- special strains adapted to local differences in soil, temperature and
rainfall. The wild rice native here in North America, so important to
many Indian tribes and still an important food for waterfowl, is a
Cultivated rice is a typical annual grass with hollow jointed stems and
fibrous roots. It grows to be from 2 to 5 feet tall and has a seed head
resembling oats. Most of it is grown in tropical or subtropical regions
of southeastern Asia and neighboring islands. It can be grown best in
low river bottomlands subject to frequent floods which leave deposits
of rich silt. These are divided into a patchword of "paddies" separated
from each other, and the ditches that furnish them water, by earthen
walls. Most farmers own only one small paddy.
Such lands are not suitable for the use of machinery and, even where
water buffaloes and wooden plows are used, a prodigious amount of
back-breaking labor is required to prepare the soil, plant the rice, flood
it, weed it, harvest it, thresh it, and polish it for use -- all by hand. In
Japan, the Philippine Islands and elsewhere, rice is grown on
mountain slopes terraced with walled-in shelves, from the valley to the
top. These are flooded during the rainy season but it is a prodigious
task to keep them in order and control the water. Contrast these
methods with rice farming on irrigated valleys in California -- seeded
by airplane and employing modern machinery throughout.
Rice was introduced into South Carolina in 1694 and, until the Civil
War, was a major crop on the south Atlantic coast. Thomas Jefferson
spent years trying to introduce "dry" rice which could be grown on
uplands instead of the disease-ridden tideland swamps.
To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Update: June 2012