Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 353-A   October 11, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Sorghum, to many people, means a crop grown solely for making molasses. In pioneer days when salt was scarce and sugar or "short sweetenin" was scarcer, people depended upon wild honey, or maple sugar and syrup, and especially upon sorghum, or "long sweetenin", to flavor their food. Most backwoods settlers had a "cane" patch. Now, only about one percent of our crop of sorghums is grown for that purpose, chiefly in Tennessee.

In autumn, before its seed heads were ripe, the sorghum was cut. The stalks, stripped of their leaves and heads, were hauled to a local mill and shredded in a contraption operated by waterpower or by a mule that plodded endlessly around it at the end of a long pole. The sweet juice so extracted was then boiled down to a thick syrup, frequently dark and slightly bitter, which the farmer took home in "stone" jugs. These primitive mills still operate in the hills of southern Indiana and Illinois, Tennessee, and the southeastern states.

Do not confuse sorghum with sugar cane. Both are members of the Grass Family but sugar cane, which supplies blackstrap molasses and about half of the world's sugar, is a tropical plant native to southern India. It requires a hot climate, fertile soil and an abundance of moisture -- conditions found in the West Indies, Hawaii and along our Gulf coast.

Sorghums, more closely related to some of our native prairie grasses, such as Big Bluestem, apparently originated in regions of Africa and Asia which are hot but have only moderate rainfall, and have been cultivated for 4000 years in portions of India and China as a substitute for rice. Sorghums do well on almost any type of soil, including "alkali soils "; can withstand more heat and drought than most cereal grains - - especially corn; have few insect enemies and few diseases. They have been the salvation of our semi-arid dry-farming regions and dwarf varieties were developed for the Dust Bowl. The jointed pithy stems, from 2 to 20 feet tall, flower and bear seeds in a head at the top. Most kinds have compact heads producing hundreds of seeds. Broomcorn, however, an important crop in Oklahoma and adjacent states, has long many-branched heads of stiff straws. The seeds are rounded or flattened, vary in size from that of a BB shot to pea-size, and may be white, yellow, red, brown, or black, according to the species.

There are three groups. The saccharine sorghums are tall and leafy, with an abundance of sweet juice but a light yield of seed. Sudangrass from Africa and Johnson grass from Turkey, are grown chiefly for pasturage and hay. The non-saccharine grain sorghums, although also cured and used as fodder or in silos, tend to be shorter, more stocky, less juicy, and most of them bear heavy crops of seeds. They include Milo Maize, Feterita, Kaffir Corn (from Africa), Kaoliang (from Manchuria), Durra and Shallu. These are widely used in feeds for livestock and poultry, and as meal or flour for human consumption.

The seed coat of the grain sorghums contains a wax used for furniture and shoe polishes, sealing wax, carbon paper and insulators. The seeds contain more protein than corn and about the same amount of starch -- a starch that can be used for adhesives, sizing for paper and fabrics, and to make glucose syrup and dextrose sugar so widely used in canned goods, confections, baking, and other foods. Laundry starch, malt beverages, grain alcohol, industrial alcohol, and butyl alcohol used in lacquer solvents and weed killers, are other products from sorghums. Waxy sorghums are being grown to produce the glutins used as a substitute for tapioca in gums, adhesives, pastes and puddings. Do you like puddin' ?

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