Sorghum is a global food and fodder crop and it makes a pretty good syrup.
Sorghum is a drought and heat resistant member of the grain family, making it an easy plant in the Bay Area. Also, the seeds make excellent food for local birds and wildlife, and backyard chickens. If you’ve ever bought a bag of wild birdseed, the larger, dark brown seeds are sorghum. Sorghum is used predominantly in the South to make syrup, but it is the world’s fifth largest cereal crop. Sorghum’s high sugar content makes it useful in making biofuels, alcoholic beverages, and flour. It can even be popped like popcorn or added to soups and stews, the way you would use barley. Sorghum is an ancient grain, having been domesticated some 8,000 years ago, and it is gluten-free.
Cousins to sugarcane, sorghum is one rugged plant. It reproduces by rhizomes and by seeds and it grows and spreads so well that “Johnson grass” (Sorghum halapense) has earned its reputation as a troublesome invasive. The same characteristics that make sorghum a potential problem are the very same characteristics that make it a useful landscape addition. Some sorghum varieties grow as tall as corn, while others have more of a clumping growth. In either case, the wide, flat leaves grow upward and then hang over, staying green all summer. The seed clusters are abundant and prolific. Sorghum is a short-day plant. This means that is needs long nights to begin the flowering process. In the Bay Area, most sorghum plan its will die back to clumps in winter and then come back each spring, proving a wealth of seeds for local birds and wildlife (and you!) throughout the summer.
Nitrogen ‘fixing’ sorghum
Like legumes, pineapple, mango, and sweet potatoes, sweet sorghum has evolved alongside a helpful bacteria (Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus) that fixes atmospheric nitrogen, making it available to to the plant and its neighbors (until it goes to seed).
Sorghum pests and diseases
Like many other plants, sorghum has built-in defenses of its own. In its early stages of growth, and when severely stressed, sorghum plants contain relatively high levels of hydrogen cyanide and other chemicals that protect it from being eaten. Dried fruit beetles, sugarcane aphids, crane fly larva, and sorghum midges may also attack your sorghum, but I have found this to be a very durable plant.
Using sorghum in a home garden or landscape
While you can certainly grow sorghum in an agricultural field, this plant also lends itself nicely to the edges of walkway paths, raised beds, difficult areas, and poor soil. Once established, sorghum needs only minimal care and irrigation, compared to most other plants. Also, it will come back, year after year, without any effort on your part.
Try adding this ancient grain to your garden landscape today!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!