As often happens, and one of the things I love about wildcrafting is that I go out to look for one thing and I find something else entirely. This time it was a cluster of oat plants going to seed. I’ve grown oats before, but rarely seen them growing wild, so I was pretty excited.

Oat plants are Avena species. In NZ no-one seems to talk about varieties, so I’ve never been sure what oats we have here. I’m guessing the ones I found grew because someone had dumped some seed there (it’s a well known spot for dumping garden waste). I guess birds could have brought the seed in too. Either way, it’s likely that it’s seed from commercially grown plants. I don’t see much oat growing wild (although admittedly it’s hard to spot before it seeds).

Identifying Oat plants

Like other grains, oat plants have three obvious structural parts: the stems, the leaves and the grain. The stems of oat are notably round and hollow – the straw of oatstraw. The leaves look like large blades of grass (hence the difficulty recognising them before they seed).

The seeds hang from a thin stalk that grows out from the main stem.

They are covered in an outer husk that separates off as the seed matures – you can see the empty ones at the top of that photo. Inside the green double husk is the oat proper. For medicine you want the oatseed when it is ‘milky’ – the seed is ripe but not dried and when you squeeze it you get a milky liquid. This is why some oat medicines are known as milky oats, to distinguish from other parts of the plant, or seed harvested later. Seed for making porridge is harvested after the milky stage, when it has matured and dried.

The seeds have a beautiful green and white stripe pattern to them:

Farmers seem to plant one oat crop a year, harvesting late summer I think. I found oat pretty easy to grow, even sowing later in the season. Oat is also used as a manure crop in gardening (planted in early spring or late autumn), so you could harvest the milky oats, and even some of the oatstraw, and then dig in the remaining plant. I’m not sure if whole oats from a store will sprout as the hull has been removed. But you can get oats for sowing in many places including organic stores. Koanga have an old variety hull-less oat for growing the grain, and Kings are selling Avena sativa seed specifically as a cover crop.

Oat medicine

Oat is a superb nerve nourishing herb – it is both nutritive and healing.

US wise woman herbalist Susun Weed devotes a whole chapter to it in her book Healing Wise. She recommends taking it as an infusion (using the dried oatstraw) to access the abundant stores of minerals, especially calcium and silicon.

Other North American herbalists rave about milky oat tincture for its ability to strengthen nerve function, promote relaxation and relieve stress.

Oat also works on the hormonal systems, and is a lovely cosmetic and skin healer. If you don’t have access to oatstraw or milky oat tincture, then eating the oats themselves is also highly beneficial. You get the abundant minerals as well as the nerve strengthening properties.

I’ve use oat mainly as an infusion, and of course as porridge. It’s one of the mainstays of my health.

A word about oatstraw for sale in NZ. Oatstraw is sold in two grades: green and gold. Green is harvested when the plant is still vibrant and growing and the seed is milky. The dried herb should reflect this – there will be a green and light gold colour in the cut herb, and it will smell clean. It includes the whole above ground plant so there should be some seed in it as well as leaf and stalk before they’ve browned off. If everything is brown then it’s not green oatstraw even if the seed is there (they’ve just left it too late to harvest).

Gold oatstraw is the leaf and stalk harvested later, usually after the grain has been taken off. Theoretically it should be possible to harvest this well, but in NZ all the gold I’ve come across smells and tastes bad. I suspect it’s because the oatstraw is harvested after the grain has been cut, but it hasn’t been looked after well. Herbs need to be processed to dry as soon as possible after harvesting to retain the freshness. Gold oatstraw comes across as a leftover byproduct of the oatmeal industry. It’s cheaper because of this, but not worth the bother in my opinion. It may taste ok in blends or even as a tea, but made into an infusion it tastes like you’re drinking brewed grass clippings. A part of this will be because of the difference in chemistry once the plant has dried off before harvesting, but some of it seems lack of care in drying and storing.

Don’t buy oastraw that smells musty or mouldy.