Such a beautiful name, Avena sativa, known by most as the common oat. It’s interesting how knowledge of a plant can become lost even as it is daily right under our noses. Humankind has focused so much on the calorie-dense oat grain as a food source, we’ve neglected its medicinal uses, not to mention those of the other parts of the plant. Milky oat tops and the oatgrass stem also have much nourishment and medicine to offer.
Milky oats are the oat tops harvested when they are in their milky stage, during which the oat tops release a white, milky sap when squeezed. This stage, which lasts approximately one week, occurs after the oat begins flowering and before the seed hardens and becomes the oat grain we eat as oatmeal. Tincturing the milky oats while fresh preserves their bioactive potency. Alternatively, milky oats can be dried and used as a nutritive tonic, and are a beautiful addition to tea blends.
Oatstraw is the name given to the stem of the oat plant harvested during the milky oat stage, when it is still green. The ideal way to consume oatstraw’s nutritive and medicinal qualities is in an infusion made by steeping one ounce of dried oatstraw (and dried milky oat tops, if desired) in four cups of boiling water for 4-12 hours. The resulting drink is light, cooling, grassy, slightly sweet, and very nutritious.
Uses of Avena Sativa
The entire plant is rich in minerals and trace nutrients such as silica, magnesium, phosphorus, chromium, iron, calcium, alkaloids, protein, the vitamin B complex, and vitamins A and C (Holmes, 1997 and Berger, 1998). Regular consumption of an infusion of dried oatstraw and dried milky oats is an excellent way to incorporate vitamins and bioavailable minerals into your diet. The calcium and magnesium in oatstraw help build strong bones.
Along with vitamin B, calcium and magnesium also help soothe and strengthen nerves. Oats are considered one of the best herbs for “feeding” the nervous system, particularly in times of stress and in the case of nervous system weakness or exhaustion associated with depression (Hoffman, 2003), overwork, or emotional trauma (Rose, 2010). Symptoms may include irritability, chronic fatigue, inability to focus, loss of libido, and heart palpitations (Rose, 2010). Oatstraw infusion helps mellow the mood, ease anxiety, combat the effects of daily stress, and resolve sleeplessness.
As the phrase “sowing your wild oats” hints, oats are also a love potion, supporting sexual health and increasing libido by nourishing the endocrine system and regulating hormones (Edwards, 2000), moistening glands, and restoring nerve health (Berger, 1998). Love potions also support heart health, and oats’ ability to lower cholesterol is well known.
By strengthening and soothing nerves, balancing endocrine function, and nourishing the immune system, oatstraw fosters physical, mental, and emotional strength and resilience (Berger, 1998). As the tall oat plant which sways and dances gracefully with the changing winds yet remains firmly rooted and grounded in the Earth, so too will those who take oat’s medicine.
The rich and hydrating milky nature of oats soothes itchy skin conditions such as poison ivy, chicken pox, or other stress-related skin conditions. Tie a muslin bag (or a clean sock) full of oats in the running stream of bathwater to add milky emollients to the water, and then squeeze the oat milk from the bag directly onto your skin, rubbing gently. And speaking of baths, adding ½ gallon of oatstraw infusion to bathwater is a lovely way to relax, rejuvenate, and refresh.
As a tincture, milky oats are indicated for the same nervous system conditions as oatstraw (exhaustion, depression, insomnia, anxiety, sexual debility), but in more acute cases when the symptoms are more severe, or in cases of drug and alcohol withdrawal (Bennett, 2014). In this case, milky oats tincture can be taken along with daily oatstraw infusions.
Contraindications & Dosage
Oats, oatstraw, and milky oats are safe for everyone, from babies to pregnant or nursing mothers to elderly folks. The only contraindication is for people with celiac disease; however, people who are gluten-intolerant (not allergic) typically do well with oatstraw infusion (Bennett, 2014). Suggested adult dosage for milky oats tincture is 3-5 mL three times a day (Hoffman, 2003), and typically 1-4 cups of oatstraw infusion per day.
Growing & Harvesting Oats
Would you like to grow oats in your own garden? Spring is the time to sow your oats – literally! Oats are planted in the spring for a mid-late summer harvest, so this is the time to get seeds in the ground. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, and Fedco Organic Growers Supply all offer organic Avena sativa seeds. Planting oats couldn’t be easier:
- Rake soil to loosen,
- Broadcast the oat seeds by hand (thickly, to suppress weed germination),
- Rake the seeds into the soil or cover with one inch of soil (lest the birds eat them!),
- Water regularly, and
- Sit back and watch your oats grow.
Once the seed heads appear and become plump, squeeze the tops daily to make sure you don’t miss the milky stage. Harvesting the tops is easy and fun – just pinch the stem between two fingers, slide up the stem, and the grains will pop off one at a time. Either tincture the tops immediately in alcohol or dry them on a screen. Once the tops are harvested, cut the oatgrass stems just above the soil level and dry thoroughly in bunches before storing either whole or after cutting into small pieces.
Enjoy your homegrown oats and its many uses!
Interested in learning more about oatstraw? You can find this herb in our extensive Herbarium plant database. Learn more about The Herbarium membership here.
Bennett, Robin Rose. (2014). The Gift of Healing Herbs. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Berger, Judith. (1998). Herbal Rituals. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Edwards, Gail Faith. (2000). Opening Our Wild Hearts to the Healing Herbs. Woodstock, NY: Ash Tree Publishing
Gladstar, Rosemary. (2001). Family Herbal. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing
Hoffman, David. (2003). Medical Herbalism. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Holmes, Peter. (1997). The Energetics of Western Herbs. Boulder, CO: Snow Lotus Press, Inc.
Rose, Kiva. (2008). http://bearmedicineherbals.com/sweet-cream-the-medicine-of-milky-oats.html
Weed, Susun S. (1989). Healing Wise. Woodstock, NY: Ash Tree Publishing