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.