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Rye (Secale cereale) is a grass grown extensively as a grain and forage crop. It is a member of the wheat tribe (Triticeae) and is closely related to barley and wheat. Rye grain is used for flour, rye bread, rye beer, some whiskies, some vodkas, and animal fodder. It can also be eaten whole, either as boiled rye berries, or by being rolled, similar to rolled oats.
Rye is a cereal and should not be confused with Ryegrass which is used for lawns, pasture, and hay for livestock.
The early history of rye is unclear. The wild ancestor of rye has not been identified with certainty, but is one of a number of species that grow wild in central and eastern Turkey, and adjacent areas. Domesticated rye occurs in small quantities at a number of Neolithic sites in Turkey, such as PPNB Can Hasan III, but is otherwise virtually absent from the archaeological record until the Bronze Age of central Europe, c. 1800-1500 BC. It is possible that rye travelled west from Turkey as a minor admixture in wheat, and was only later cultivated in its own right. Although archeological evidence of this grain have been found in Roman contexts along the Rhine Danube and in the British Isles, Pliny the Elder is dismissive of rye, writing that it “is a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation” and wheat is mixed into it “to mitigate its bitter taste, and even then is most unpleasant to the stomach” (N.H. 18.40).
Since the Middle Ages, rye has been widely cultivated in Central and Eastern Europe and is the main bread cereal in most areas east of the French-German border and north of Hungary.
Claims of much earlier cultivation of rye, at the Epipalaeolithic site of Tell Abu Hureyra in the Euphrates valley of northern Syria, remain controversial. Critics point to inconsistencies in the radiocarbon dates, and identifications based solely on grain, rather than on chaff.
Rye, alone or overseeded, is planted as a livestock forage or harvested for hay. It is highly tolerant of soil acidity and is more tolerant of dry and cool conditions than wheat, though not as tolerant of cold as barley. In Turkey, rye is often grown as an admixture in wheat crops. It is appreciated for the flavour it brings to bread, as well as its ability to compensate for wheat’s reduced yields in hard years.
The flame moth, rustic shoulder-knot and turnip moth are among the species of Lepidoptera whose larvae feed on rye.