Tarahumara Popping Sorghum Crop: by Cameron Lee

Native to Northeastern Africa, sorghum is one of the world’s most important grains for human consumption and is a staple food for more than 500 million people in over 30 countries. It is extremely versatile and can also be used for alcohol production and foraging. In the nineteenth century, sweet sorghum syrup was used as a sugar-substitute by many small communities. By the late 19th century, it was a dominant crop in the South, reaching a peak production of 24 million gallons, later declining due to the rise in corn-based glucose crops. The stem of certain varieties can be used for building, fencing, weaving, broom making, and firewood. For industrial purposes, sorghum can be used as an alternative to vegetable oil, waxes, and dyes. Sorghum should be planted shortly after corn when the soil temperatures are around 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing the crop to be planted in the spring season and can be planted until mid-summer if the rains are late. Easily adaptable to various climates, it can be grown in a wide variety of soils and is resilient in droughts. However, it is still susceptible to pests, such as birds and bugs. In temperate regions, sorghum will typically be harvested annually, whereas, in the tropics, it is a perennial and able to be collected many times throughout the year using a technique called ratooning.  The earliest evidence of sorghum was found as far back as 3,000 years ago and eventually spread to the drier regions of Africa. By 1,000 BCE, it was reported to be under cultivation in India. By the start of the Christian era, the crop spread along the coast of Southeast Asia and later to China.

Tarahumara Mexico

Sorghum’s seemingly never-ending versatility saw the crop quickly adopted by many different cultures all over the world. In China, sorghum is a critical ingredient for the production of distilled beverages such as Maotai and kaoliang and was even featured in the 1987 film Red Sorghum. In southern Africa, sorghum is used to produce many different varieties of beer, even being included in their local version of Guinness. African sorghum beer tends to be a brownish-pink beverage with a fruity, sour taste, with its alcohol content varying between one and eight percent. South Africa also uses sorghum to make a stiff porridge – also known as mabele in Northern Sotho and brown porridge in English. The porridge can be served with soured milk known as maswi or with merogo (a mixture of boiled greens) similar to collard greens or spinach. In the Indian province of Uttara Karnataka, a variety of unleavened bread is usually made with sorghum and is a staple diet throughout parts of India. In the eastern Karnataka and the Rayalaseema area of the Andhra Pradesh region, a round flatbread called roti is made using sorghum and is the staple food for the communities who live there.

Sorghum is similar to maize in many characteristics in appearance and versatility; a cane-like grass that has the potential to grow up to six meters tall with large clusters of grains branched out from the stem. The individual grains are relatively small compared to other grains, typically only three to four millimeters in diameter. Depending on the variety cultivated, the colors of the grains can vary anywhere from a pale yellow to reddish-brown to a dark brown.  The head of the sorghum is called a panicle, with spikelets paired with one another. Though they are ordinarily self-fertilized, they can also cross-pollinate. Before the 1940s, most grain sorghums grew up to five to seven feet tall, which created harvesting problems. Today, most varieties of sorghums have two or three dwarfing genes and are typically two to four feet tall and are usually called milo in the United States. 

A specific variety known as broomcorn has had a major impact for storing, cleaning, and ornamental uses. It differentiates itself from other cultivars of sorghum in that it produces heads with fibrous seed branches that can grow as large as 36 inches long. Native to Central Africa, production of this crop then spread to the Mediterranean. Use of this crop would be especially prevalent during the Dark Ages. First described in Italy in the late sixteenth century, it would be introduced to the United States in the early eighteenth century. Initially grown as a garden crop, commercial production started to gain popularity by 1834. Illinois being the largest producer of broomcorn in the 1860s before ceasing in 1967. Broomcorn was commonly used for wreaths, swags, floral arrangements, baskets, autumn displays, and like the name suggests, brooms. 

Tarahumara Popping

Highly versatile and adaptable, sorghum can be grown in harsher climates than other grains like maize and wheat while still producing an impressive yield and be used in numerous applications. Though the journey of sorghum to the Americas was relatively recent, within the past two hundred years, the crop was quickly adapted by groups that have been marginalized by outsiders. The Tarahumara, from which the variety shares its name, is one of the largest groups indigenous in North America, with a population of nearly 100,000 people, who have been cultivating this specific variety. Best known for their long endurance running, the majority of the Tarahumara are concentrated in the cool highlands of the Sierra Madre Occidental, Mexico. These highlands allow them access to lumber and land for sheep, cattle, and goats to graze. While others live in the tropical Las Barrancas or the gorges below the highlands, which allow the cultivation of fruit trees, tobacco, and other tropic-grown crops, many would migrate between the two regions depending on the seasons. Though the two areas produce different resources, both groups of the Tarahumara have similar lifestyles. As the lands around them were developed and modernized, the Tarahumara remained relatively uninfluenced by Mexican culture due to the harsh landscape of the highlands and their general reluctance to embrace outside influence. Their culture is bound to their physical environment and their way of life, the remoteness of their surroundings, making running their primary mode of transportation. Their diet was primarily vegetarian with meat usually only eaten on special occasions. Instead, they tend to use their livestock as a source of fuel and manure. They cultivate a variety of Mesoamerican crops such as corn, fruit, potatoes, beans, and squash. Occasionally supplementing their diet with hunting and gathering herbs, nuts, berries, cacti fruit, and seeds. 

Gateway Greening offers Tarahumara Popping Sorghum seed packets for $1/each.  You can purchase these packets at our office, Monday-Friday 8-4 PM or at our Demonstration Garden on Saturdays 9 am-noon.  



Sweet Potato Crop: by Cameron Lee

Native to Central and South America, the sweet potato is one of the world’s most important crops. Versatile, the sweet potato can be used in numerous applications. Famous chemist and botanist, George Washington Carver, a Missouri-born agricultural scientist, and innovator were able to discover a little over a hundred uses ranging anywhere from flour, starch, sugar, molasses, to stains, dyes, paints, and even medicine. Regarded as the world’s fifth most important crop, they can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, whether boiled, baked, or fried. Although high in starch like many grains and root crops around the world, it is also very rich in nutrients allowing it to serve as both a staple crop and vegetable (something pretty rare in the world of crops).  Therefore, multiple ethnic groups across the world have made the crop a staple in their cuisines. Although not widely known, the greens of the sweet potato are edible and very nutritious and widely used in some Southeast Asian and New Guinean cultures. 

The sweet potato is enjoyed around the world by many different cultures from Africa, Asia, and America. In Africa, particularly West African countries, the young leaves and vine tips are frequently consumed as a vegetable. In Egypt, the tubers of the sweet potatoes are known as “batatas” (بطاطا) and are common to see street vendors selling the crop. At times being baked as a snack or dessert, they are typically coated in honey. In East Asia, roasted sweet potatoes are quite popular. China typically has the yellow cultivars which are baked in a large iron drum and are also sold by street vendors. In Korea, the starch is used to make naengmyeon (cellophane noodles), even using sweet potatoes as a pizza topping. In the United States, sweet potatoes are mostly featured on Thanksgiving, but sweet potato fries among other uses have been gaining more popularity in recent years. 

There are three broad categories of sweet potatoes grown across the world.  There is a white starchy kind similar to potatoes, a hard, dry yellow kind, and the moist, sweet, and dark orange kind that is popular in the U.S., which is confused with the yam. Although sweet potatoes are commonly referred to as yams in North America, the sweet potato is a part of a different plant family. Yams are a part of the Dioscoridae family, which were domesticated in West Africa, whereas the sweet potato was domesticated in Western South America.  This confusion between the sweet potato and yams happened before the Civil War. Ships that brought West African slaves over to the United States via the Trans-Atlantic slave trade carried crops native to Africa as food for the long voyage. The crops included an African species of rice and other grains, okra, yams, and various kinds of beans and peanuts. The word yam is of West African origin with two languages having similar pronunciations of the word. In Fulani, yams translate to nyami meaning “to eat,” and in Twi, it translates to anyinam. Seeing that the two are relatively similar to one another, the West African slaves continued to use yams as the name for sweet potatoes. 

Sweet potato vines can grow up to nine to ten feet at a relatively fast rate, and although it is a perennial in the tropics, it will not survive our winters here and therefore is grown as an annual crop. A hermaphrodite, the plant has both male and female reproductive organs. Although sweet potatoes are pretty adaptable plants, they grow best in light and medium soils that are well-drained and require full sun for best yield. Its leaves can grow up to 10 centimeters and are typically heart- or egg-shaped with unlobed and sometimes toothed-margins. In late summer they produce pale purple or white trumpet-shaped flowers similar to a morning glory up to seven centimeters long and is often darker in color inside the tube. They grow in both tropical and temperate regions that experience hot summers. Due to its need for warmer climates, they have become a staple across Asia and Africa. When cooked, the sweet potato is sweet and highly rich in nutrients with some varieties having softer skins while the dryer white and yellow types are bred for their high starch content. When it comes to storing, if handled gently and left unwashed, the sweet potato can last for several months. They should not be stored in refrigerators as they can develop an off-taste and a hard core in the center. For preparation, the sweet potato should only be washed right before cooking because moisture can promote spoilage.

There are several theories about the sweet potato and its journey across the Pacific. According to findings from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that ancient Polynesians may have interacted with people living in South America before European contact. Archaeologists have hypothesized that ancient samples found in Polynesia around 1000 to 1100 CE originated from the western coast of South America. Pat Kirch, an archaeologist at the University of Berkeley, believes that the ancient Polynesians had the technology required to make the long ocean voyage across the Pacific to South America. They were great navigators of water, and in more recent years, further evidence has accumulated that the ancient Polynesians had made landfall in South America at some point. Making the voyage in large, sophisticated, double-hulled canoes which had the capability of carrying eighty or more people and was large enough to be out at sea for months. A linguistic link between the ancient Polynesians and the ancient South Americans seems to affirm the theory about the sweet potato’s movement across the Pacific as sweet potatoes have been found in Hawaii to Easter Island to New Zealand. The Uto-Aztecan word camotli seems to be the root of all words found across the Pacific. This evidence indicates that the center of domestication for the plant located in western South America.

Further theories have emerged as some believe that the sweet potato was deliberately or accidentally put on a boat that drifted across the Pacific, although both scenarios may seem unlikely, they are plausible. Ocean currents like the Humboldt current are slow and sluggish compared to the Gulf Stream, with cold water from Antartica flowing up the coast of South America where it dissipates and eventually flows towards the west. A third theory is that the sweet potato was first brought to Europe and then later introduced to Asia following Columbus’ expedition in 1492. Later continuing its journey eastward through the Silk Road, when explorers arrived in Polynesia in the eighteenth century, the sweet potato was already ingrained in their culture. However, the crop would not be identified by European explorers until the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto made landfall in South America. Tradition states that the Spanish explorers were the first to introduce South America’s native sweet potato and the white potato to the rest of the world; with its westward journey across the Pacific guided by Portuguese voyagers arriving at the Philippines and the East Indies. However, this theory tends to be Euro-centric and discounts the maritime capabilities of the ancient Polynesians who were even able to colonize Madagascar, later becoming the Malagasy people. 

“Carver Sweet Potato Products.” List of Products Made From Sweet Potato By George Washington Carver. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.tuskegee.edu/support-tu/george-washington-carver/carver-sweet-potato-products.

 “Sweet Potato (Ipomoea Batatas).” Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/62941-Ipomoea-batatas.

Coe, Sophie D. America’s First Cuisines. University of Texas Press, 2015.

Bryant, Alice, and Ashley Thompson. “Many Food Names in English Come From Africa.” VOA. February 12, 2018. Accessed July 11, 2019. 


“Ipomoea Batatas (L.) Lam.: Plants of the World Online: Kew Science.” Plants of the World Online. Accessed July 02, 2019. http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:1101088-2.

Cantaluppi, Carl, and Gwen Rubio. “Sweet Potato History-Did You Know?” NC Cooperative Extension News. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://granville.ces.ncsu.edu/2013/09/sweet-potato-history-did-you-know-2/.

 Doucleff, Michaeleen. “How The Sweet Potato Crossed The Pacific Way Before The Europeans Did.” Food History and Culture. January 23, 2013. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/01/22/169980441/how-the-sweet-potato-crossed-the-pacific-before-columbus.

“Who Are the Malagasy?” Exploring Madagascar, a Land of Cultural and Biological Richness. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.wildmadagascar.org/overview/FAQs/who_are_Malagasy.html.