Oats (avena sativa)

Oats: They’re what’s for breakfast—and much more. Cultivated throughout Europe since around 2000 BCE, this annual grass is believed to have originated in areas around the Mediterranean. Oats are now grown in temperate areas across the globe, wherever water and humidity are plentiful. The plant has flat leaves and smooth, thin stems. Its pendulous, seed-containing spikes appear in early summer.


Plant profile

Common Name: Oats

Description: Grass, 2 to 5 feet tall, with flat leaves and smooth, thin stems; pendulous, seed-containing spikes appear in summer

Hardiness: Annual; dies back after flowering

Family: Poaceae

Flowering: Late spring to midsummer

Parts Used: Seed heads and stems

Habitat: Descended from species native to the Mediterranean

Culinary use

The hulled seed heads of oats can be eaten whole (as groats, with the nutritious bran intact) or rolled (steamed and flattened). Rolled oats are a common ingredient in breakfast cereals, such as muesli, granola, and oatmeal, as well as in baked goods. For a healthier breakfast, substitute steel-cut oats for instant oats.

You can use oat flour, made from ground whole oats, to make breads, cakes, and cookies. You can also substitute oat flour for wheat flour as a thickener for soups and sauces and as a coating for fish and chicken. Oat bran, which is very high in fiber, can be added to many foods. Add sprouted seeds to sandwiches and salads to boost the vitamin and mineral content and add crunch.

Medicinal use

Oat bran contains soluble fiber, which increases the elimination of cholesterol and has been shown to lower cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood pressure levels. When oats are consumed, soluble fiber traps cholesterol in the intestines and eliminates it through the stools. Fiber also helps prevent constipation by attracting water, creating soft, bulky stools that stimulate bowel movements.

Oats are used externally in products that help relieve the pain and itching of skin conditions such as dryness and eczema. Oatmeal baths are also helpful in treating these conditions, as well as for treating herpes and shingles. Herbalists sometimes recommend a tonic made from immature oat seeds to treat anxiety and exhaustion, although clinical studies have not proven this use to be effective.

Other uses

Oats are commonly grown as animal fodder in temperate areas across the globe. Horses given oats as part of their feed are said to be healthier, leaner, more muscular, and more energetic.

How to grow it

Sow in early spring in well-drained soil and full sun. Harvest in summer, before the seeds are fully ripe. Cut the plants near the base when most of the growth has turned brown and the seeds are no longer milky.

Oats can also be used as a soil-building cover crop planted in late summer to early fall. In spring, till under the stubble to add organic matter and nutrients to your soil. Wait 2 to 3 weeks before planting garden crops where oats have grown; a compound in oat residue can inhibit the growth of other plants.

Wild Oats?

While we think of oats primarily as a healthy and nutritious breakfast food, this plant has a long history of medicinal use. To treat colic or a sharp pain in your side, English physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) recommended putting oats in a bag with bay salt, heating it in a frying pan, and applying it “as warm as can be endured.” Boiled oats in vinegar were suggested for the treatment of spots and freckles on the face and body. Culpeper also advised mixing oats with bay oil and applying it as a poultice to treat itches, leprosy, and other ailments.

More than 3½ centuries later, on the Internet, oats are being touted to increase libido, genital sensitivity, and orgasms in men and women. The claims are based primarily on anecdotal evidence, personal testimonials, and a single human trial conducted by a commercial entity. A “buy this product” box usually appears next to the spectacular claims.

What to do? Oats don’t seem to cause adverse effects in most people, unless there is a specific food allergy, such as intolerance to gluten and related compounds. Herbalists I know do recommend oat extracts in formulas designed to increase desire and performance, and most of these ingredients are thought to be safe and effective. So eat your oats, work with a knowledgeable medical professional to address any concerns you have about issues related to libido, and experiment with formulas deemed safe.