Cultivated and prized since before recorded history, wheat made sizable human populations possible because of its high protein and nutrient content. It was easy to preserve and store for long periods of time. Today, wheat is the most commonly grown grain in the world, with nearly 700 million metric tons produced yearly. Varieties of wheat grow in a wide range of climates, water conditions and elevations, and at different times of the year. Wheat dubbed "winter" and "spring" reflect some of that diversity.
What is called "winter wheat" doesn't actually grow in the winter. It's planted in the fall, when it germinates and grows through the cool days and nights until the weather turns cold. At that point, the plants enter into a dormant period, where they wait for the spring to warm them sufficiently to finish growing and fruiting. Harvest takes place in the middle to late spring.
Spring wheat is more quick-growing than its winter cousin. It is planted in the spring. It grows through the spring and summer, and is ready for harvest by the late summer or early fall.
It takes a well-trained eye to tell winter and spring wheat berries apart. Winter varieties are slightly larger than the spring seeds, and narrower, with one tapered end. Spring berries are a bit rounder and glossier in appearance.
Seed Variety Advantages
Winter wheat, having been exposed to colder temperatures during growth, tends to have a higher carbohydrate content, which some prize for growing wheat grass. Insects, molds and fungus are fewer during the colder growing months, so winter varieties usually do not have as many pesticides sprayed on them. Since winter wheat is also less expensive for farmers to produce, it is also usually slightly cheaper for buyers.
About three-quarters of the wheat grown in the United States is of a winter variety. It's favored because it can grow at a time when not much else can, but spring wheat competes with other crops. Spring wheat is generally higher in protein, favored for breads. Both varieties are good for pasta and cereal. Both store well.
Other Wheat Seed Distinctions
Wheat seeds also differentiate by "hard" versus "soft," and "red" versus "white." Hard wheat has a harder endosperm than soft wheat, and also contains more protein than soft. Red wheat has a reddish color in appearance, from its outer seed coat. The color also carries with it a slightly bitter taste. White wheat has been genetically modified to to remove the coloration and thus it tastes a bit milder and sweeter.