White Sonora Wheat

Botanical name:

Triticum aestivum

Local Spanish name:

Sonora Blanca or Flor de America

Collection site:

Sweetwater, Gila River Indian Community, Maricopa County, Arizona

Historical origins:

Wheat is thought to have been domesticated in the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys of Iran and Iraq, around 6,500-7,500 BC. From here, it traveled with explorers into China and Europe. Wheat was brought to the Americas by the Spanish and arrived in Northern Mexico and Southern Arizona in the 1600's, when missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino established twenty missions throughout this area. Kino introduced Christianity, ranching, and wheat-based agriculture to local people such as the Pima and the Tohono O’odham. Wheat was first grown to provide flour for communion wafers but its winter growing season was a good compliment to traditional summer monsoon crops.

Culinary uses:

In Sonora, Mexico, the green ears of the wheat are toasted. The Akimel O’odham people found wheat so well-adapted to their climate that it complimented corn as a staple food. Wheat was used in place of corn in dishes such as poshol, a roasted corn and bean soup. It was also used to make tortillas and pinole, a drink often made with ground corn meal. White Sonora wheat is still used today in Mexican and Southwestern cuisine to make tortillas, a variety of breads, and for its wheat-berries which provide substance to salads and soups. The gluten content of this wheat allows the tortilla makers to build extremely large tortillas, which are the defining characteristic to the large burros found in Sonoran cuisine.

Socio-cultural importance:

As one of the oldest aridland-adapted grain varieties cultivated in the area, White Sonora wheat is a symbol of the borderlands of Sonora and Southern Arizona. The introduction of wheat as a crop had a mix of effects on the biodiversity and economy of the locality. Wheat synchronized well with the existing traditional agriculture of the area as its growing cycle meant that a spring harvest of food could be made without competing with the common summer crops. By the late 1700's, it is said that the demand for wheat was so great that 700,000 pounds were produced each year, with varieties such as White Sonora thriving in the dry conditions. The Gila and Salt River Valley of Central Arizona and the Central Valley of California were the breadbaskets of the west. Flour mills were constructed all along the rivers throughout the region. Most of the flour, however, was shipped out of the area making it largely a cash crop economy. During the Civil War in particular, large amounts of wheat flour was being shipped to the war ravaged eastern US.

When mechanization of agriculture became widespread during the 1900's, many locals employed in the wheat trade lost their jobs. The damming of the Gila River by Euro-Americans, meant to provide increased irrigation for crops such as wheat and cotton, further impacted local indigenous communities at this time. Their crops suffered dramatic losses as they traditionally were cultivated without intensive water usage and were suited to growing with seasonal river runoffs. White Sonora wheat fell into this category, producing poorly with this increased water availability. Wheat varieties that grew well under irrigation became more popular in the area and by 1975, White Sonora wheat became commercially unavailable.

In recent years, Native Seeds/SEARCH has partnered with other local organizations to reintroduce White Sonora wheat to the Southwest. A grant through the Western SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) program supported several local farmers, tortilla makers, brewers and bakers working together to revive the cultivation, milling and use of White Sonora in the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage area of Southern Arizona.

Cultivation techniques:

In the borderlands region of Arizona and Sonora, wheat is planted from November – January and harvest in May or June before the onset of the summer monsoon season. Depending upon the winter temperatures, it will mature in approximately 90 days. It is classified as a spring wheat and will grow during the winter because of our mild climate in the Southwest. The hulls are easy to remove without specialized equipment, making it a good option for small garden operations.

 

References:

BKW Farms, Marana, Arizona. Cooking and Baking with White Sonora Wheat. Retrieved from http://www.bkwazgrown.com/cooking-and-baking-with-white-sonora-wheat/

Ark of Taste. White Sonora Wheat. Retrieved from https://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark-item/white-sonora-wheat

Nabhan, Gary Paul (1992) The Desert Smells Like Rain. A Naturalist in O’odham Country. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

O’Neill, Lisa (2015) Ingraining: Bringing White Sonora Wheat Back to the Sonoran Desert. Edible Baja, March/April Issue 11.

Scott, Shannon (2001). Wheat – The Well-travelled Grain. Seedhead News: 73.

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