Plant Spotlight: Sesame

I love growing new varieties in my garden; it keeps gardening fun and exciting. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with growing different herbs and spices, such as saffron, ginger, and sesame. For the most part, these experiments have been successful, and I have learned a great deal along the way. And there is something special about growing and harvesting your food and spices for the table. In today’s blog post, I’d like to talk about my experience with sesame, one of my new favorite plants to grow.

A Sesame Plant Growing in My Garden

Sesame is native to sub-Saharan Africa and India and is produced predominately in Sudan, India, and Myanmar. Known as a survivor crop, the plant’s tolerance to high heat and drought conditions (growing where other crops fail) makes it ideal for these regions. Archaeological evidence suggests that sesame was first domesticated over 5500 years ago. It is revered for its edible seeds and its oil, as sesame has one of the highest oil contents of any seed. Japan is the world’s largest sesame importer, as sesame oil is widely used in their cuisine.

Sesame Has Been Cultivated for Thousands of Years

Sesame seeds come in several different colors, depending on the variety. White and other light-colored seeds are most common in the Americas, Europe, India, and West Asia. In contrast, black and dark-colored seeds are more commonly produced in China and Southeast Asia. For my first planting, I purchased an organic black and tan sesame mix from Fruition Seeds. Their seeds are adapted to our Northeastern climate. Interestingly, the plants that produce the black and tan seeds, respectively, are identical in appearance. Therefore, unless you diligently labeled your plants at the time of sowing (which I may have forgotten to do), it will be a complete surprise at harvest time.

It is best to start your sesame plants indoors four weeks before your last frost date, hardening them off and transplanting them outdoors after danger of frost. While the plants tolerate a variety of soil types, for best yield, they prefer fertile, well-draining soil with a neutral pH. They also perform best in a location with full sun.

The Plants That Produce the Black and Tan Seeds, Respectively, Are Identical in Appearance

Before growing sesame, I had no idea how the sesame plant looked. I was only familiar with the seeds themselves, such as on bagels, bread, and Asian cuisine. So I was delighted to discover how beautiful the sesame flowers are within the garden. Having no room left in the vegetable garden, I grew my sesame plants in the Pollinator Playground garden. The flowers fit right in among the zinnias, cosmos, and dahlias, with their tubular shape reminiscent of foxglove or snapdragon. Sesame flowers can range in color from white to pink to purple, depending on the cultivar. The flowers from the black and tan seed mix that I grew were a glorious pale pink.

I Was Delighted to Discover How Beautiful the Sesame Flowers Are within the Garden

It turns out that I’m not the only one that found the sesame flowers appealing. The bees also enjoyed the blooms, yet another reason why my sesame plants were right at home in the Pollinator Playground garden. I couldn’t help but chuckle every time I walked past and spotted a bee bum sticking out of a bloom.

Bees Also Love Sesame Flowers
I Chuckled Every Time I Saw a Bee Bum Sticking Out of a Bloom

As the season progressed, my sesame plants started to produce seed capsules along the stalk. And as the plants matured, the pods began to ripen. I had read that the pods are ready for harvest when they are brown and have started to crack open. When ripe, the capsules split and release their seed, a process called shattering. Incidentally, this is where the phrase “open sesame” comes from. Typically, seed pods towards the bottom of the stalk will ripen first, sometimes even while the plant is still flowering.

Sesame Seed Capsules Start to Grow On the Plant
Look at All Those Seed Capsules!
Seed Pods Are Starting to Ripen as the Plant Matures

When my sesame stalks started to turn yellow and brown at the end of the season and the leaves started to drop from the plant, I checked the pods daily. I  hoped to catch them and harvest them before they fully opened, at which time they would spill their seeds to the ground. When the time was right, I gathered the pods and stalks and placed them in a paper bag to finish ripening in a dry location indoors. When the pods had thoroughly dried and had become brittle, it was time to harvest the seed. I gently pried the seed pods open to reveal the sesame seeds inside. Each pod contains approximately 50 to 80 seeds, and it is estimated that you’d need about 15,000 seeds for one pound. My sesame seed harvest certainly didn’t equal a pound, but I was surprised at how many seeds I got from just a few plants.

Stalks Have Dried and Seed Capsules Have Cracked Open-It’s Harvest Time
Gently Pry the Seed Pods Open to Harvest the Seeds
Black Sesame Seeds Are Striking

After harvesting, you can use a colander (with a bowl beneath to catch the seed) to help remove the leftover seedpods and chaff. You can then store the seed in an airtight container in a cool, dark location until ready to use. For long-term storage, you can place them in the freezer. Sesame seeds can be toasted, made into tahini, baked into bread, or eaten raw in numerous recipes. I’m not sure yet how I will enjoy my seeds, but one thing is for sure, I will be saving some of them to replant next year. I look forward to having them bloom in my garden again, and I’m sure the bees will appreciate them too. If you’ve never tried growing sesame before, I highly recommend you give it a try. Not just for the delicious seeds they produce, but for the beautiful flowers that will grace your garden. So, go ahead, try growing something new because Thistle Be the Day!

Freshly Harvested Black and Tan Sesame Seeds

Sources: Sesame, Sesame Harvesting, Sesame Storage

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