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Sorghum bicolor L. Moench is a tall grass species that is primarily cultivated for its grain, but this article focuses on the uses of the dried leaves, which are used as a colorant, as well as in a wide range of traditional medicinal purposes. This fast growing grass grows in clumps, and can reach over four meters tall. The boiled leaves impart a burgundy color. It is used medicinally and aesthetically more so than it is as a flavoring.
Sorghum bicolor leaves are available year round in African markets. This grass is typically an annual, planted at the onset of the rainy season and harvested in the beginning of the dry season.
Sorghum is a very important cereal grass that over 300 million people in the world depend on as a main source of nutrition. Sorghum is the world’s fifth most important grain, after rice, wheat, maize and barley, and can grow in a wide range of temperature, altitude, toxicity and drought. Every part of the grass can be used, from the stalk to the leaves to the grains. In Africa, some Sorghum types are exclusively cultivated for the dye in the leaf sheaths. Little is known about the benefits of Sorghum bicolor leaves aside from the colorant properties.
Sorghum bicolor leaves consist primarily of carotenoids, flavodoids and phenolic acids, chlorophyll, lycopene and beta-carotene, as well as palmitic, stearic, oleic and linoleic acid. Studies suggest that a diet prepared with these leaves would provide natural antioxidants and essential fatty acids that could fight cardiovascular related diseases.
Sorghum bicolor is grown for grain, forage, syrup, sugar, as a medicinal plant, and as a colorant. In northern Ghana a dish called Waakye (waa-che) is prepared in which rice and beans are cooked with Sorghum bicolor leaves to give a reddish color to the dish. In other parts of Africa the dye is used in beer making or to color cheese and lickstones for cattle. The stems of Sorghum bicolor have glucose, and a syrup can be extracted from them. The grains are used in a wide variety of applications.
Sorghum bicolor goes by many different names, including Milo, Broomcorn, Karrir-corn, Guinea-corn, Shattercane, Great Millet, Sorgho Rouge, Massambala and Waakye. It is used as a folk remedy for cancer, epilepsy, flux, stomach ache, as a blood enhancing concoction, and as a tonic for anemia and general lack of vitality. In addition to its many uses as a medicine, the deep red color extracted from the leaves is used to dye baskets, goat skins, basket weaving materials, textiles, grass mats, wool, mud houses, and as a body paint.
Sorghum is believed to originate in North Africa, possibly Ethiopia, and was cultivated as early as 5000-3000 BCE to around 1000 BCE, although most experts now favor the latter period. From northeastern Africa, Sorghum was distributed throughout the continent and through trade routes to the Middle East and India. From there it is believed to have been carried to China and throughout Asia along the silk route. It was brought to the Americas by the slave trade, and subsequently introduced to South America and Australia.