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Plant of the Month: August 2006

Sesame
Sesamum indicum L.

= S. orientale L.

PEDALIACEÆ; Sesame Family

Sesame seeds are familiar to us all --just think of hamburger buns with sesame seeds. But few of us in Seattle know the famous plant itself. Until this summer I knew it not. Now I have learned a bit --that I herewith share; I supply a mere overview; entire books about sesame exist. Humans have cultivated sesame since as early as 3,000 and perhaps even 3,500 B.C. Every year now, more than 2,000,000 tons of these oilseeds are harvested.
    Sesamum is a genus of 15-20 Old World tropical and South African species. The generic name derives from Sêsamon --taken by the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates (469-300 B.C.) from the Arabic. A modern Arabic name is Simsin. The scientific names Sesamum orientale and Sesamum indicum both date from 1753; botanists have argued since 1989 about which one is legitimate, but in November 2005 published a recommendation (15 votes to zero) favoring Sesamum indicum.
    Sesame might have originated in tropical Africa, but uncertainty reigns. It has long been cultivated elsewhere, notably in India, and likely also was independently domesticated there. In many other places Sesame has been introduced, and partly naturalized. It has been in the United States since the 1600s when African slaves brought seeds here.
    It is an annual herb, growing anywhere from 1 to 8 feet tall, branched or single stemmed; the stems are more or less square rather than round. In color the various strains are yellow-green, blue-green or purplish. The leaves near the bottom are opposite and can be trifoliate. Higher on the stems the leaves are alternate in part, and simple. They can be more or less hairy, and as long as about 5 inches. They can be toothed or not. From the upper leaf bases flowers emerge singly or in pairs or trios. Though individual flowers are lovely, there are too few open at a time, so overall Sesame's floral beauty is too subtle for the plant to be prized as an ornamental.
    Flowers vary in color from white to pink to deep purple, and measure from five-eighths to 1.5 inches long (15-38 mm), are tubular, and suggest foxglove or Paulownia flowers. Yet they lack the generous abundance of foxglove and the exquisite fragrance of Paulownia. Each flower gives rise to a plump seed capsule that ultimately opens (open sesame) to release 50-80 (100) of its precious little seeds. In the Arabian Nights' tale Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, "Open, O Sesame!" was the secret password to open a rock cave loaded full of looted treasure.
    The seeds are white, ivory, yellow, gray, olive-green, red, brown or black, 1.5 to 4 mm long. They are nutritious, with slightly more protein than pistachio nuts and cashews, and more oil than either, while being very low in carbohydrate. They are extremely high in calcium, manganese, copper and iron. Few plant sources contain higher levels of vitamin B1 (e.g., sunflower seeds, fresh peanuts). Sesame also has healthy antioxidants or lignans.
    Although the leaves are edible they are not choice, being bland in flavor, hairy, and mucilaginous; they have been used for soap or shampoo. The sprouted seeds are sometimes eaten. By far the main value to people is the seeds, or their oil. The toasted or untoasted seeds are sprinkled on bread, cakes, cookies and crackers much as poppy seeds are. Sometimes they are used to flavor tempeh (fermented soybeans). Sesame butter, and a crushed seed paste called tahini, are commonly used in West Asian cooking.
    Sesame oil, the Queen of Oils, --also called Gingelly or Ginglii oil, Bené or Beni oil, Til or Teel oil (from the Sanskrit tila)-- is used in numerous ways: to make margarine; to flavor food; for cooking in; in soap making; in paints and inks; in cosmetics and perfumes; for pharmaceutical uses; as a lubricant; as an illuminant; and for anointing. The residue from the oil extraction process is used to feed livestock. The Middle Eastern candy called halvah is made using sesame oil, tahini, flour and honey. Note that unrefined sesame oil is best for flavoring food; refined oil is better for high-temperature cooking. Every year thousands of tons of sesame oil is imported into the United States, mostly from Guatemala, Mexico, and India.
    Sesame is tropical and heat loving, so is rarely cultivated in cool temperate regions. It thrives wherever cotton can be raised, and is grown commercially in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas; less in Arizona, New Mexico and Missouri. There are 18 Sesame plants growing at the University of Washington Medicinal Herb Garden in Seattle, and these are the only specimens that I have observed firsthand; their cultivar name is not known. Stephen Facciola's 1998 book Cornucopia II lists 5 sesame cultivars available to the general public: 'Afghani', 'Blackseeded', 'Black Thai', 'Brown Turkey', 'Tan Anatolian'. A great many more exist globally.
    To grow Sesame successfully in a cool climate such as in Seattle, it would be prudent to start the seeds inside, plant them outdoors in June in a warm spot, and make sure the plants get any summer watering they may require. But do not overwater --sesame needs good drainage, and is very drought tolerant.
    Sesame has been used in many medicinal ways in various countries, but I have not spent time discovering such applications. In Gary J. Lockhart's unpublished book Healing with Water, Air and Light, he writes: "In Hindu culture . . . A bath in hot water and then rubbing the body with sesame oil is known as abhyanga. The oil was supposed to spread through the internal channels, and it was supposed to be to the body as water to trees in the desert. Abhyanga was believed to prevent and cure headaches, improve eyesight, remove fatigue, facilitate sleep and invigorate the sense organs. It is said to be especially beneficial after physical exercise."

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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