Sorghum is a titan in the history of agricultural crops. The original seeds were collected 8,000 years ago in southern Egypt. From there, sorghum traveled through Africa, India, Asia and both Americas. Today, this family of grasses is grown worldwide for human consumption, animal feed and biofuel. Sorghum is particularly drought-tolerant, which makes it a desirable crop in arid lands, where the conditions would quickly stress other plants. It is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world, the third most important in the United States. I realize these facts and figures do not make sorghum sound like a good candidate for home gardens. However, it is well-adapted to many US regions and therefore grows easily – at any scale. Also, its drought-tolerance (and height) does seem to endow it with a certain nobility in the field. Try experimenting with a few varieties in your own space. Here are some suggestions of what to do with small production sorghum.
For those who have grown tired of small-batch jam, artisanal pickles, locally sourced greens, local…you name it – consider local sugar. I, for one, am ready to advance from canning simple condiments to churning out my own pantry staples – sugar, flour, etc. Learn about at-home sorghum syrup production here.
Sorghum Vulgare, or broomcorn, can be dried and used to make household brooms. Simply soak several stalks in water to soften the hard ends. Taper stalks with a sharp tool and bind them to a wooden handle with cord. 20 – 30 heads make one, large broom. Weave the brushes together with waxed hemp to achieve a broad, traditional broomhead.
Sorghum will get to be at least 6 ft high. This makes it an ideal crop to grow for natural shade cover. Protect peppers from sun scald and tender greens from wilt by planting a row of sorghum stalks nearby.
Sorghum seed heads can range in color from golden to red to burgundy to deep indigo. If nothing else, the dried stalks make a beautiful, ornamental additional to your summer dinner table.
Purchase Texas Black (pictured above) or Red Broomcorn sorghum seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Believe it or not, bananas are older than Christendom. A sweeter cultivar of the usually starchy fruit was grown in Rome as early as 63 B.C. The plant’s scientific name, Musa acuminata, is actually a tribute to Antonius Musa, the personal doctor of Emperor Octavius Augustus, who promoted widespread cultivation of the fruit. As kingdoms, republics and empires rose and fell the bananas distribution continued to grow. Plantations emerged in Costa Rica, Ecuador, India, and Indonesia producing millions of tons of the fruit and making it one of the most widely consumed foods in the world.
It wasn’t until 1502 that the Cavendish variety, commonly sold in supermarkets today, was created in England from Chinese stock. When this super sweet cultivar arrived in the USA it was considered such a delicacy people ate it with a knife and fork. In England, people missed the point entirely and made use of the banana’s skins, stewing them in a pie. Banana’s are actually grown from suckers, or offshoots of the original mother plant, as the heavily cultivated varieties no longer produce viable seed.
To grow your own bananas, try the hardy, plain green Japanese banana, Musa basjoo, which thrives in zones 5 and up. For a little more color look for the Himalayan banana, Musa sikkimensis, which sports purple stripes on its leaves.
The rapid growth of cities and shift from agrarian to factory based production, left post-industrial England in a sort of frenzy for all things green. For many Brits the relationship to the natural world had changed from the tangible to the imaginary and nostalgic. However, aided with the newly invented Wardian Case (a sort of precursor to the modern terrarium) an entirely new class of botanical exotica, such as the then highly fashionably fern, could be collected and shipped to England, for those who could afford them.
The case is named after British botanist Nathaniel Ward who personally has 25,000 specimens of herbs in his house and on its grounds. He discovered the plants were being killed by London’s air pollution consisting of heavy coal smoke. Pay homage to Ward. Without him, Chinese teas, delicious coffees from Yemen and rubber plants from South America would never have made it around the world.
Although the term ‘kimono’ may bring to mind lushly flowering cherries, and elegant, long stemmed irises, the word itself simply means ‘something to wear’. Designed to articulate the wearer’s gender, status, and age, it wasn’t until the 1600s that the kimono departed from its more pragmatic role in society and rose to the lofty heights of botanical art.
The kimono’s styling reflects Japan’s reverence of nature, and the ancient Japanese belief in the protective and symbolic powers of plants. This is is true even in their creation. Many of the dyes used in the traditional coloring process are plant derived, and imbue the robe with their special powers. For example, purple is the color of inextinguishable love. Gromwell, the plant used to create this purple dye physiologically reflects this metaphor, sporting extremely tenacious, very long roots. The careful designs of bamboo, wisteria, chrysanthemums and hollyhocks deliver precise messages about life and wisdom. Pine, bamboo and plum are the ‘Three Friends of Winter’ (pictured above) and stand for longevity, perseverance, and renewal. Cherry blossoms symbolize the fragility and beauty of life.
True to Japanese art and nature itself, each design mirrors the effervescent quality of beauty, almost capturing the breath-holding moment when spring’s fragile blossoms begin their perilous end-of-season cascade.
Author Sarah Rose tells the remarkable tale of botanical imperialism and espionage in her recent book, For All the Tea in China. The story centers on the perilous adventures of Scottish plant hunter Robert Fortune, who disguised himself as a Chinese merchant and entered the depths of the then uncharted inland China to discover the country’s long guarded tea secrets.
At the time England, China, and British Colonial India were bound in deeply dependant trade triangle centered around two plants – the Opium Poppy and Camellia Sinensis, commonly known as, the tea plant.
Through “botanical espionage,” Fortune tipped the scales in the Queen’s favor and brought the knowledge of tea (planting to production) to the world.
Fortune can also list the Kumquat and the aptly named Fortunes Double Yellow Rose to his contributions to England’s complex botanical legacy. However for a country obsessed with Tea, it was his discoveries with Camellia Sinensis that solidified his place in plant history.
See the video below for a primer on the subject or stream the BBC’s serialization of For All The Tea In China here.