Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Amazing and Versatile Sorghum

When I was living in Madison, I had the opportunity to garden alongside many Hmong people in the city's community gardens. The Hmong had come to the US as refugees of the American secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War. They brought with them many of the crops they'd been accustomed to growing in the mountains of Laos. They'd brought to this country their own varieties of vegetables like cucumbers, onions, chili peppers, yard long beans, sorghum, and even opium poppy. Because I was so interested in their unique vegetables, I asked for seeds so I could grow them myself.

The Hmong sorghum was a sweet sorghum, a plant not unlike sugar cane that produces a sweet liquid in its stem. The Hmong gardeners would use the plant by simply cutting down the stalk and then cutting the stem at each node. The hard surface of the stalk was then peeled, exposing a liquid filled pith that could be chewed and sucked dry of all its sweet nectar. I'd eaten sugar cane before then, long ago when I was in Nicaragua, but never sorghum.

Growing out the seed of the sweet sorghum, I discovered that the seed head was reminiscent of a grain I'd remembered seeing grown locally where I was in Nicaragua. It's seed heads were much more compact and the grain much larger than the other kind of sorghum. Though I didn't know it then, I'm pretty sure that was a variety of sorghum grown to be ground into a flour and used like wheat or other grains.

The sections of the stem

The pith, ready to chew up after removing the hard surface 

But I soon learned the versatile sorghum plant had other uses. While in Madison, I'd become familiar with a broom sorghum offered through, I believe, Native Seed Search, but I was disappointed that the stems of the seed heads, the fibrous bristles normally used in broommaking, were not long and full enough to be used as intended.
Upon arriving at DR and getting a tour of nearby Sandhill, I learned that sorghum is also a valuable crop here in Missouri, and has been for a while. Because Missouri is too cold for sugar cane, sweet sorghum served as a source of sugar for settlers of the region. Sandhill grows and processes sweet sorghum to produce a molasses-like syrup that can be used in place of sugar, honey, or any other sweetener. They sell their product far and wide. Though a lot of Missourians haven't heard of sorghum syrup, many older ones still covet it because it may have been all they had for sweetener in their early days.

The Hmong sweet sorghum seed head

To make the syrup the canes are first harvested at about the time the seed heads are fully mature. That's when the sugars in the pith of the stalk peak. If you harvest too early you'll miss the peak sweet time. The cane is harvested by cutting it off near the ground with a machete and trimming off the leaves and seed head. The stalk is left in the field for a few days so the cane dries out a bit and the sugars are concentrated. The stalks are gathered up and put through a mill that consists of grooved wheels that move against each other, squeezing the stalks in between. As the liquid is pressed out, it flows downhill by pipe into the sugar shack, where it is boiled down into a syrup.

What's interesting about these different sorghum varieties is that they have been selected to only serve the purpose intended. If you look in the pith of a broom sorghum stalk, it is dry as a bone. I suspect the same is true of the grain sorghum stalk. And clearly the seeds of sweet sorghum are not as big and meaty as those of the grain sorghum. Likewise, the sweet sorghum and grain sorghum make short stems on their seed heads, rendering them far less useful as broom heads.
I'm pretty sure there are sorghum varieties that are meant to be used as livestock feed too. You do see fields of them from time to time amongst the ocean of corn and soybeans, but this sorghum isn't meant for sorghum syrup, so it's probably livestock. 

My sorghum broom, made at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, AR

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