SORGHUM Bicolor:  Sorghum, Sorgho, Milo, Pitimi

Basics: Plant as you would corn, in small clumps, after danger of frost has passed, each clump 1-2 inches apart. Water regularly until established, after which it requires little to no watering to reach maturity.  90-110 days, depending on variety- head start in greenhouse conditions allow for timely harvest. Seeds are mature when they are dry. Harvest in late fall for both seed and sugar stalks.

photo 1 (32)

Pitimi is the word Haitians use for millet and sorghum, or small grains. In some Haitian households, pitimi might be looked down upon as food for the poor, for its long association with subsistence living– delicious “bird food.” Rice is considered a more desirable grain, although the nutrition, affordability, and culinary benefits of pitimi can’t be denied.

For the Grow Haiti! collection, we chose sorghum because it is an extraordinary, beautiful plant with a very long history. It is also an easy to grow, wonderfully water-wise plant that will add a stately element to any Oregon garden. On top of that, its many uses will delight anyone who ventures to add sorghum to their vegetable plot.

Scroll down for recipes, and easy instructions for making a home kitchen version of sorghum syrup or molasses!

Transplant after danger of frost has passed. Space in tight rows for support as you would corn. If transplanting in coco fiber pots, you can tear the bottom and sides gently, if you chose, but sorghum roots are so vigorous and strong, that this is one of the few instances where it’s almost better to transplant whole, pot and all. Water regularly until established– sorghum grows quickly, resembling corn, but needs far less water. In fact, once the seed heads begin to appear, you can stop watering them altogether– if not sooner.

Harvested sweet sorghum stalks

Harvested sweet sorghum stalks

Sorghum forms deep roots that seek out moisture, and develops a waxy outer layer on its sturdy stems to hold in precious moisture– a very adaptable member of the grass family, it evolved in the semi-arid landscapes of Sub Saharan Africa, cultivated first by Africans, and has traveled around the world for millenia, sustaining entire civilizations. It is one of the most consumed grain in the world, and a staple in parts of North Africa, such as Sudan.

Seeds are ready to harvest when they are dry– usually in late September to early October. If you pinch them and a milky sap comes out, they are still developing. If you are harvesting sorghum stalks for sugar, it’s at this point you can taste test for sweetness. If they are sweet, strip the leaves off in preparation for harvest. The peeled stalks make a sweet treat to chew on while you work in your garden.

If you want to use sorghum seeds for feed, be sure to check how much protein your livestock can eat in a sitting. Sorghum is higher in protein than corn, about on par with wheat. Barbara Pleasant at Mother Earth News has written a very helpful guide to home growing and harvesting sorghum.

Sorghum seed harvest

Sorghum seed harvest

Sorghum came to the Americas as a basic provision for enslaved Africans, and became associated with food for slaves at the same time as it became a Southern and Midwestern U.S. staple crop, used as animal fodder and a home-grown sugar source. It was first known in this country as Guinea Corn. The University of Oklahoma has a thorough fact page on sorghum and its many uses.

For home cooking, after you thresh and winnow the grains, and store in an air tight container, treat sorghum like rice. Haitians prepare it as a porridge, as a savory dish with fresh green peas, which is prepared and served as you would rice.

Although sorghum syrup-making faded in the U.S. over the last half of the 20th century, due to the inexpensive ubiquity of processed sugar and corn syrup, it has been making a comeback of late- there are also bio-fuel initiatives with sorghum crops, but the old varieties of sugar and grain sorghum developed for human consumption and livestock feed are more than worth bringing back into home gardens and small scale farming. Very promising work is being done by the Land Institute in Kansas on developing sorghum as a perennial crop. There is also more commercial commitment by an international brewing operation in Haiti to grow locally-sourced sorghum, with Haitian farmers.

Black Amber Sorghum

Black Amber Sorghum

Matthew Hubbard, aka “The Lents Farmer,” one of our volunteer trial gardeners in 2014, wrote an excellent entry describing the history of sorghum, and its success in his garden. Well worth a visit! THE LENTS FARMER:  FUN SORGHUM FACTS. Great photos of his garden, travel, and Haitian trial plants as a bonus.

Recommended reading:
In the Shadow of Slavery, Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff)


Sorghum syrup making has traditionally been a very labor intensive, involved, and sweaty operation, requiring many hands, hoofs, and strong backs. It was part of the yearly harvest work, so that farmers and communities could stock up on home grown sweetener when sugar was too expensive for most people. It’s possible to make a modest but useful amount of your own version at home, from sorghum grown in your garden. Unless you have a cane press to expell the juices, part of the diy process involves cutting up the stalks to simmer in a pot.

Time (after harvest):  2 days.

About 15-20 stalks per batch, and one 4-5 gallon pot.

Trim leaves off of sorghum cane and cut into 4-6" pieces.

Trim leaves off of sorghum cane and cut into 4-6″ pieces.

Day 1:

Be sure all leaves are removed from stalks. Pull them down and use a paring knife to pull away from the stalk. The leaves will make the final syrup taste very bitter if left on the stalks.
Cut the stalks into 6 inch sections, and slice in half. Use caution, as they will slip around like a carrot.

Throw all the cut stalks into the pot and cover with water. You won’t need to fill it too high, lest the water boil over. Filling it a couple of inches above the level of stalks is enough.

Bring the pot to a near boil, then reduce heat to simmer (medium-low).  Stir occasionally. Add water to maintain initial level while cooking the stalks.

After 8 or so hours, test the sweetness of the stalks by removing one from the water, letting cool, and biting onto it. If the stalk tastes like an overcooked artichoke, then the sugar has leeched out into the water and you are ready to strain. If the pulp is still sweet, continue to simmer for several more hours, testing now and then for progress.

Pulp of sorghum sugar stalk, when sliced open. On the upper stalk, the waxy coating is visible.

Pulp of sorghum sugar stalk, when sliced open. On the upper stalk, the waxy coating is visible.

Day 2:

Stalks should be ready for straining. Pour through sieve into large bowl or another pot, and save the water! The water is your future sorghum syrup.
If you catch the stalks into a colander, you can press them with your hands to squeeze out remaining liquid. Discard the stalks.

Strain the liquid again through a cheesecloth and return to pot. Set pot to simmer on low-medium heat, uncovered. This is the evaporation stage. It will take several more hours for the liquid to reduce. Before it is too thick, strain through cheesecloth a few more times, or use a straining spoon now and then. The particles in the liquid are partly wax, and pieces of pulp from the stalks. They are harmless, but since this is not the traditional method of making sorghum syrup, this is what makes your final product “dirty” syrup, a sugar reduction that has more plant material flavoring than if you simply pressed the juice from the canes.

Batch 2 of sorghum syrup-- Black Amber. Pictured alongside 2 Giraumon squash.

Batch 2 of sorghum syrup– Black Amber. Pictured alongside 2 Giraumon squash.

Once the liquid is reduced to 2-3 cups, strain again into a sauce pot, or a canning jar and a double boiler.  Watch closely as the final reduction happens quickly and if you let it cook too long you will end up with candy.  When the syrup is the consistency of maple syrup, pour into a jar (or remove the jar from the double boiler) to cool. Voilà! Your very own, approximately half a cup’s worth, of delicious, sweet,”dirty” sorghum syrup! Enjoy!

Afroculinarist Michael Twitty composed a sorghum syrup glaze for a special bbq chicken wing recipe, with the nice touch of a Plate de Haiti tomato centerpiece garnish.

Another simple treat is to mix some of the sorghum syrup with butter, to spread on fresh biscuits or pancakes.  (Use 1/2 cup of butter to 1/4 cup of sorghum, or to taste, blend well, and serve at room temperature.)

To see sweet and seed sorghum varieties in all stages of growth in our 2014 trial garden in Cottage Grove, Oregon, visit our Grow Haiti! photo album on flickr.


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