Eleusine coracana

Once again, I’m indebted to Jackie Chambers for sharing both her photographs and writing talents. Very much appreciated, as always.

Eleusine coracana is an annual plant native to Africa, where it has also been grown as a food crop since ancient times. It is similarly cultivated throughout Asia, where it is believed to have been introduced as a cereal crop thousands of years ago. The plant has easily adapted to higher elevations and is grown in the Himalayas; the field in this photograph was growing at an altitude around 2300m.

Due to its wide cultivation, Eleusine coracana goes by a variety of common names. For an interesting list of local names in the original scripts, please see the Multilingual Multiscript Plant Name Database: Eleusine coracana (maintained by Michel Porcher).

Finger millet, one of the English common names, tolerates poor soils and low rainfall. It also lasts a very long time in storage. These features, combined with its very high nutritional value (higher in protein, fats and minerals than corn or rice), makes it an essential crop to some of the poorest farmers in the world. For more information, read the entry in the Plants for a Future Database.

As a member of the grass family, the plant has strap-like green leaves with parallel venation. The seed heads are distinctive, sometime described as a goosefoot, or cat claw. As a result of centuries of cultivation, seeds heads can vary in colour and shape, including curved heads on this ornamental variety or straight heads as seen in the Wikipedia entry on Eleusine coracana.

GrassBase — The Online World Grass Flora coordinated by The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew — provides a detailed botanical description of Eleusine coracana.

Besides being a food crop, Eleusine coracana is also fermented and made into alcohol. I first encountered this plant when drinking tongba, or hot millet beer, while traveling though Nepal.

The grains of millet are cooked, fermented, and dried. To serve, the dried mash is placed in bamboo flasks with boiling water then poured over the mash. The concoction is allowed to sit for a few minutes to “stew”. A straw is used to suck out the water and alcohol from the mash. The resulting warm beverage has a distinctive sweet-sour taste. As the mixture becomes dry, more boiling water is added and the process repeated. This is not a quick drink; the process can last for hours until the alcohol (or the individual consuming the beverage) is depleted.

Eleusine coracana
Eleusine coracana

8 responses to “Eleusine coracana”

  1. Knox

    Thanks Jackie for more horticultural enlightenment through an interesting article, great photos and a neat sense of humour!

  2. Meg Bernstein

    Thanks for the cultural explanations. I had heard of millet, but wasn’t really to sure what it was to Homo sapiens.

  3. Sheila

    So interesting, we need to be thinking of crops like this the way things are going these days.

  4. Dominic M Maze

    I’m not quite sure how “dried” mash is able to retain ethanol and then release it when mixed with boiling water. If it is dry there is obviously no water OR ethanol. I do believe you may have made an error with the preparation of that alcoholic drink.

  5. Jackie

    My apologies – the grain is fermented but not dried before serving – many thanks to Dominic M Maze for pointing out the error.

  6. Bill Smith

    Does this grain stay where it’s planted?
    Does it become invasive?
    Bill S

  7. Harold benson

    thanks,this is interesting and crops like this will be of great help nowadays.I will like more of this…

  8. Alex Jablanczy

    I found a plant dont even know if it’s a sedge or a grass, but it is a cereal growing on extremely poor soil in Algoma. It is very tasty and edible even raw and I have been collecting a bit for about ten years. So far I havent been able to get any MNR or agronomist nor forester types to show any interest and I dont know any botanists. I also dont know how to use a digital camera when it works it tells me I have used up all disk space. Tonight a pingpong partner offered that he has photographed an Indian Pipe which I encouraged him to send to BPD. If all this pans out I’ll take him to the site where the future crop of northern latitudes grows and he can photograph and mail it to this site and a botanist could identify it.
    But then it may be a well known wild barley or
    oat or rye or wheat or buckwheat or indeed a millet. Or an unknown grass as yet undiscovered and uncultivated.

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