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the web of life in southern Africa

Avena sativa (Oats)

hawer [Afrikaans]; outse [N Sotho]; habore [Sesotho, Tswana]; iowutsi [Xhosa]; ifoliji [Zulu] 

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Monocotyledons > Order: Poales > Family: Poaceae

Oat plants were domesticated in Europe, as late as 1000-2000 BC. Oats is a healthy cereal because it contains high protein levels, antioxidants and a substance that reduces blood cholestrol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

Compared to other domesticated cereals, evidence suggests that Avena sativa (Oats) was domesticated at a fairly late stage, with archaeological evidence of domesticated forms dating to around 1000-2000 BC in Bronze Age Europe. It coincides more-or-less with when horses started being used as draft animals. It is thought that domestication was started through Oat plants growing as weeds in cultivated fields of wheat and barley and being harvested along with the crop. Selection would have occurred through plants that retained their seed (non-shattering forms) being harvested preferentially over those that lost their seeds early (shattering forms). Avena sativa is considered to be derived from the hybridisation of wild species, in particular Avena sterilis and Avena fatua. Oat plants are grown both as food for people and fodder for animals such as horses and chickens.

Oats is regarded as a healthy food because it is rich in a soluble fibre called betaglucan, which evidently helps in reducing blood cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Oats is also a source of antioxidants and it has the highest protein content (15-16%) of any of the cereals.  

The oat seed is put through varying degrees of processing to yield the desired product:

  • Groats. Oat grains with their husks taken off and roasted. They take about 30-40 minutes to cook.
  • Steel-cut oats (also known as Scottish oats, Irish oats or pinhead oats). Groats that have been cut into bits to reduce cooking time (which amounts to about 15 minutes).
  • Rolled oats. The kernels are steamed, flattened into flakes and stored dry (e.g. 'Jungle Oats'). This flattening process also shortens cooking time.
  • Quick-cooking oats. Rolled oats that have been cut more finely to further reduce cooking time.
  • Instant oatmeal. Oats that have been pre-cooked and rolled very thin, which means that you simply add boiling water in order to cook your oatmeal.  
  • Oat flour. Flour made from oats has very little gluten, which means that baked goods do not rise unless you mix in a gluten-rich flour (e.g. wheat flour).
  • Oat bran. A meal made from the outer layers of the oat grain. The other types of oats (listed above) usually have their outer layer left intact. 

Oats grow well in cool, moist climates and in southern Africa are widely grown in the same regions where wheat is grown (e.g. the Swardland of the Western Cape). 


  • Anon. 2002. Encyclopedia of Foods. A Guide to Healthy Nutrition. Academic Press, San Diego, California. 

  • van Wyk, B.-E. 2005. Food Plants of the World - Identification, Culinary Uses and Nutritional Value. Briza, Pretoria.

  • Zohary, D. & Hopf, M. 1993. Domestication of plants in the old World - The origin and spread of cultivated plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley. Clarendon Press, Oxford.