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Hordeum vulgare

Herbs gallery - Barley

Common names

  • Barley

Barley is a resourceful cereal grain obtained from the annually growing grass Hordeum vulgare belonging to the plant family Gramineae. Barley is categorized in the Magnoliophyta Magnoliophyta group of the plant kingdom which also comprises other organisms that are generally known as angiosperms or flowering plants. All angiosperms possess stems, leaves, roots as well as conducting or vascular tissue (phloem and xylem).

People in the Middle East countries consume some amount of barley as they eat rice. The western states provide majority of the spring barley, while the southern states cultivate most of the winter barley in the United States. In this part of the world barley is cultivated as a cover crop as well as for autumn and spring pasture. It may be noted that this cereal grain is vulnerable to numerous plant diseases, such as rust and smut.

This cereal grain has multi-purpose uses and apart from human consumption, it is used as a fodder for animals, as an ingredient of numerous health foods and also as base malt for brewing beer and some other distilled drinks. As far as human consumption of barley is concerned, this cereal grain is used by people of different cultures to make bread and it is also used in stews and soups. Similar to other cereal grains, such as wheat and rye, barley too encloses gluten making it inappropriate for consumption by people enduring celiac disease (an inherited digestive ailment relating to gluten intolerance).

Barley was familiar to the ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese and till the 16th century people in Europe used it as a primary substance to prepare bread. Barley is cultivated in an assortment of conditions and can be grown even in places having high altitude as the growing season of this plant is very brief. Nevertheless, the barley plant is unable to tolerate hot and moist climatic conditions. Currently, instead of a common market crop, barley is usually cultivated as a cereal grain having a special purpose and in several varieties. This cereal grain is a valued stock feed, frequently used as a substitute for corn, and the superior quality grain is also used for preparing malt. However, barley is a small resource for making flour and different foods for breakfast. Pearl barley obtained by removing the husk or outer coating is also used frequently in soups and stews.

Malt is prepared by a technique called ‘malting', which involves drying up sprouted barley grains. First, barley seeds are sprouted by soaking them in water and subsequently, they are stopped from germinating further by dehydrating them by way of hot air. During the process of malting, the grains grow the enzyme needed to transform the starches enclosed in the grains into sugars, counting monosaccharides like fructose or glucose and disaccharides like maltose or sucrose. In addition, the grains also foster other enzymes, for instance proteases, which disintegrate proteins present in the grains into varieties that can be utilized by yeast.

The malted grain has several utilities, including making alcoholic beverages like whisky, beer and other drinks like malted shakes, flavoured beverages like Horlicks, Milo and Ovaltine. It is also used in confectionery products, including Whoppers and Maltesers as well as baked foods like malt loaf. Another edible item called ‘sweet meal' is prepared by pounding malted grain into a coarse food. Although many other cereals are malted, barley is the most common among them. In effect a variety of malted barley, which is rich in protein content, is frequently a label-listed forms a constituent in blended flavour characteristically made use of in making yeast breads as well as other baked food products.

It may be noted that the expression ‘malt' denotes a number of food products that are prepared using a particular process. This particular process can be applied to cereal grains, for instance malted barley; the sugar rich in maltose content, obtained from grains like the baker's malt used in numerous cereals or alternately any product founded on malted milk, something akin to a malted milkshake, for example ‘malts'.

In effect, barely is a cereal grain which is malted most frequently, partially owing to its enzyme content or elevated diastatic power. However, wheat and rye are also used for this purpose, albeit not as much as barley.

Parts used

Straw, grains.


Beside the numerous uses of barley for making food products, especially malted items, plants of this species also possess various medicinal properties. The shoots of the barley plant possess diuretic properties, while the germinated seeds (sprouts) are known to be expectorant, demulcent (a medicinal substance that soothes or mollifies mucous membranes), lenitive (any substance possessing mild laxative properties), galactofuge (any substance that reduces milk flow) and stomachic (any substance that is beneficial for stomach). The seed sprouts are also used for treating conditions like infantile lacto-dyspepsia, dyspepsia (indigestion) set off by cereals, and regurgitation (return of partially digested food from stomach to mouth) of milk as well as swollen breasts. Here is a word of caution: it is advisable that this herbal medicine ought not to be given to nursing mothers as it may decrease secretion of milk.

The seeds of barley plant possess nutritive, emollient (any substance that alleviates or soothes, especially the skin), digestive, febrifuge (any medicinal substance that lowers temperature in fevers) and stomachic properties. They are used internally as a nourishing food or, alternately in the form of barley water - an infusion prepared using germinated seeds in water. The seeds are particularly beneficial for the infants and those who are impaired. As mentioned earlier, nursing mothers who ingest barley seeds in any form are known to experience a reduction in too much lactation. Barley is also used externally in the form of poultice and applied on wounds and burn injuries.

According to folk history, the barley plant also possesses anti-tumour properties. Sprouting barley seeds possess a hypoglycaemic (unusually low blood sugar levels) impact which is preceded by a hyperglycaemic (exceptionally large quantities of blood sugar) effect. Contemporary studies have demonstrated that barley may be helpful in treating hepatitis, while other experiments have revealed that it may also facilitate in regulating diabetes. In addition, using barley bran may help in reducing the level of blood cholesterol as well as aid in averting bowel cancer.

In England people place barley straw in mesh or net bags and float them in fish ponds or water gardens to aid in reducing the growth of algae without causing any harm to the plants and animals in the pond.

In the United States, almost half of the entire barley production is utilized as fodder for animals. In fact, in several regions of the world barley forms a significant cereal grain for feeding livestock. This is particularly true for places that are not suitable for cultivating maize, particularly in the places having northern climatic conditions, for instance the eastern and northern regions of Europe. It comprises the primary feed grain for animals in the United States, Europe and Canada. In Western Canada, a finishing diet of barley is among the significant distinctiveness for beef used in marketing promotions.

A major part of barley remaining after being used as feed grain is utilized for malting purpose, since barley is most appropriate grain for this process. Barley is an important constituent in producing whiskey and beer. Beer manufacturers in England and Germany traditionally use two-row barley, while in the United States, six-row barley was conventionally used in beer production. Presently, both selections of barley are widely used. Distilled from green beer, in Scotland and Ireland whisky has been mainly made from barley, whilst other nations have made use of further assortments of alcohol sources, for instance breweries in the United States use the common corn, wheat and even rye to make whisky. A grain type may be recognized on a whisky label in the United States provided that particular type of grain makes up at least 51 per cent of the constituents as well as some other stipulations are assured.

In the 18th century, people used barley wine as an alcoholic beverage. This drink was made by boiling barley in water and subsequently blending the resultant barley water with white wine and other elements, such as sugar, lemon and borage. However, in the 19th century people made a special type of barely wine using the recipes originally belonging to the ancient Greeks. In addition to preparing alcoholic drinks, barley was also used to prepare non-alcoholic beverages, for instance barley tea, which the Japanese called ‘mugicha', and barley water by simply boiling the barley grains in water.

It has been found that barley encloses as many as eight essential amino acids and findings of a recent research show that consuming barley as a whole grain may help in controlling blood sugar levels for as long a 10 hours after consuming it. In other words, this cereal grain is effective in lowering the glucose level in the bloodstream that shoots up following any meal. Although whole grain wheat and white wheat also have the same glycemic index (GI), they are not as effective as barley as far as lowering sugar levels in the bloodstream is concerned. The fermentation of carbohydrates that are hard to digest in the colon is said to be responsible for this blood sugar lowering effect of this cereal grain. Roasted barley seeds are sometimes used as a substitute for coffee.

In addition to the whole grain barley, hulled barley, also known as covered barley, is consumed after taking away the indigestible, fibrous exterior or covering of the cereal grain. When the hull of the cereal grain is removed, it is known as de-hulled barley, also called scotch barley or pot barley. Even the de-hulled barley is deemed to be a whole grain, as it possesses its barn as well as germ, which makes it a nourishing and well-accepted health food. On the other hand, pear barley, also called pearled barley, is the barley grains without its hull and prepared by a steaming process that helps to remove the barn too. Pearl barley may be available in polished variety - the polishing process being called ‘pearling'. In effect, both pearl barley and de-hulled barley may be processed into a wide range of products, such as flour, grits as well as flakes akin to oatmeal.

In Scotland, people use barley-meal, whole meal barley flour that has a lesser weight compared to wheat meal, but has a darker hue, in gruel and porridge. In many Eastern European countries, people also use barley-meal in stews and soups. People in Africa use barley as a conventional food plant and it possesses the aptitude to enhance nourishment, augment food security, and promote rural development as also maintain natural land care.

After the barley plant has been harvested, the stems are too used for a number of purposes. In effect, stems of the barley plant are a natural source for fibers used in paper manufacturing and also as biomass for firewood. In addition, the stems are also grates and utilized in the form of mulch.

Culinary uses

As mentioned earlier, barley has a number of culinary uses. The seed of this plant is pulverized and used as flour for making bread, porridges and others. Alternately, the seeds are also cooked as a whole grain. Since the seeds do not enclose as much gluten content as wheat, this cereal grain is not apt for preparing the types of breads made with wheat. In addition, barley seeds may also be fermented to produce sourdough (also known as leaven) as well as several other types of distilled foods, for instance ‘miso' and ‘tempeh'. Many people also sprout the seeds and use them in salads. Alternately, the juice extracted from the sprouted barley seeds can also be taken as a health drink.

When the husk or the outer covering of the barley seeds is removed (decorticate), they are known as pearl barley. However, pearl barley is not viable any longer since it has been found the decortications harm the embryo. Pearl barley is especially used in preparing stews, soups and other similar culinary items. When the sprouted whole barley seeds are roasted, they yield malt. The process involves pounding the roasted seed sprouts to make flour, which is subsequently boiled in water. The liquid obtained by this process has an extremely sweet flavour and it is often fermented to make beer as well as other beverages. In addition, this liquid is also used in the form of a nourishing sweetener in a variety of food products. Barley seeds that are not sprouted are roasted and used as a substitute for coffee as well as salt.

Habitat and cultivation

The cereal grain barley is by and large an adjustable crop and is able to withstand an assortment of conditions. Presently, this cereal grain is a favourite among people in the temperate climatic regions. In the temperate climatic regions the crop is grown in summer, while it is a winter crop in tropical conditions. Barley takes around one to three days to germinate and the plant has a preference to grow in cool climatic conditions. However, barley is not especially resilient to winter.

In fact, compared to wheat, barley has the aptitude to endure saline soils more and this may possibly clarify why there was an increase in the cultivation of this cereal crop in Mesopotamia since the second millennium BC. Compared to other plants in its family, barley, which has a brief growing period, is able to endure drought much more.


Chemical analysis of the barley grain has shown that it encloses a number of nutrients, especially carbohydrates, proteins, thiamine, fiber, niacin and riboflavin. Unprocessed barley encloses several chemical substances, such as cellobiase, catalase, cytaste, lichenase, diastase, mannobiase, mannose, peroxides, oxidase as well as phytase along with vigorous proteolytic enzymes that are found only during the plant's germination phase. In addition, barley grain contains vitamins D and E, choline, folic acid and pantothenic acid.


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