Last summer I grew sesame.
While visiting the Magnolia Springs Public Library’s Seed Library (Magnolia Springs, AL), I checked out a packet of sesame. I researched how to grow them and took on this project. I knew that I would not harvest a great amount of sesame, since my garden would be smal,l but I was determined to experiment.
These seeds were packed by the Monticello historic garden center in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson was one of the most influential gardeners and horticulturalists in America. He traveled about Europe and studied the gardening traditions of many of the countries. Bringing these traditions back to America, he cultivated most of what we grow in America today. The originial gardens are fully restored and tourable at historic Monticello.
Sesame is a broad leaf summer-growing plant. It grows to 4-6 feet tall. It flowers at about 35 days and produces pods that contain up to 70 seeds. At about 120-150 days the plant dries and the pods are ready for harvest. (1) On a large scale, combines do the harvest. On a small scale, like my porch garden, hand harvesting will do.
A few months later, at planting time, we moved just one USDA growing region from 8A to 7B . I was delighted to find that sesame grows fine in region 7. The Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute (TJAI) grows them in Missouri and I used them as a reference for information on growing them in my garden. After all, the seeds did come from the Monticello Gardens in Virginia.
According to the TJAI, sesame germinates successfully when temperatures are around 70 degrees. For region 7 they suggested planting between June 1 and June 15. Mine went in a little later because of the move but they germinated by the end of the June. The plant needs a constant warm soil temperature and should be harvested before the first frost. Further instructions that I read were for planting in the ground on farmland, so I knew I simply had to keep the plants in the sun, spaced at a recommended 6″ from each other.
Renting a home without a yard forced me to create a porch garden on the east-northeast side of the house. There is a wrap-around porch but the east side is screened and I wanted the plants accessible to bees for pollination. The south and west sides of the house are shaded by the neighboring houses. With the summer sun, the front edge of the porch had direct sunlight for the majority of the day. Sesame needs direct sunlight.
The planter I started the seeds in was a window box that I set upon the porch railing. This was not the planter they would grow in, just start in. I was not sure how many would germinate but didn’t have much space, so at a recommended 6 inches apart I planted only 5 seeds, however, a little closer together, in organic potting soil. The pot I would move the survivors to was a 12 inch diameter, 12 inch deep planter filled with the same organic potting soil.
We had a typical summer storm and the window box went over the railing after the plants were about 3 inches tall. Three plants survived the germination and storm so I took this opportunity to move them to another pot; a smaller window box for just the 3 of them. When they grew over a foot tall, I moved them into the 12 inch pot and sat it on the porch floor in the corner where it would get optimal sunlight. They were planted in a triangle formation to optimize distance from each other.
No additional fertilizer was used. The plants fed off of what was in the potting soil. I watered gently all summer but gave a deep watering once a week.
From late-June to late-October I kept watch on the sesame plants. They grew quickly with a sturdy stalk, broad leaves. White, bell-shaped flowers grew from each leaf axel as the plants grew taller and turned into pods or the seed capsules. My plants produced 2 to 5 pods per axle. The pods has 4 sections with seeds lying in 2 rows per section. Some pods were large, up to one inch, some were much smaller. The typical size according to Sesame Growers Association is 2 to 8 cm. In early September I had to stake the plants as they were becoming top heavy.
When the sesame pods are ready to be harvested they turn from a moist, fuzzy, green to a dry, hard, brown. Some tend to split open although the seeds did not fall out. There is quite a small window of opportunity to harvest them or the seeds will become rancid. Harvesting too early is not beneficial.
A NOTE OF TRIVIA: The term “open sesame” comes from the fact that when the pods dry they can open on their own. At that point they are ready to harvest.
I harvested my plants on October 20, 2013. Plucking the pods from the stalks was easy but harvesting the seeds was tedious and I spread this chore out over two days so my hands would not cramp. No…I couldn’t find any volunteers to help so I did all of the work. My kids did make a good point: “you’re the one that wanted to grow the sesame, Mom.”
Once the seeds were removed from the pods I left them on a towel overnight in case any were still moist. I had a spice jar to put them in but did not want any moisture to cause them to spoil.
This was a great experiment in growing. Sesame is easy to grow but I think I want to move on to something else next summer. I recommend, if you have a yard, to look into growing this plant.
So what now? What do you do with the seeds? There are many recipes that included sesames seeds: cookies, candies, breads, Sesame Chicken, Tahini and Benne Wafers. I’ll share with you a recipe from the kitchens of our family business, DixieDining.com, for a traditional Southern Benne Wafer we adapted from an original South Carolina recipe we found years ago. Since I only got a tablespoon of sesame seeds from my plants and the recipe calls for ½ cup, I planned to combine them with the black sesame we had in the pantry. There were still some plant parts mixed with the sesame so I labored for about 15 minutes separating seeds from dried plant parts, then I knocked over the container. Oh well, glad I had the black sesame seeds. The wafers turned out great.
So, with sesame plants grown, seeds harvested and benne wafers made, I can quote the Little Red Hen: “Sob, sob, sob. I always do the job!” Yes, I did share the wafers with the kids who refused to help with harvesting. I did talk one son into creaming the butter without telling him why, so I guess I did get help. In the end, I was the one that wanted to grow sesame seeds. Everyone benne-fits!
Not interested in growing your own sesame and making benne wafers? Byrd Cookie Company in Savannah, GA makes the best Benne Wafers. Find them online.
Be sure not to use the hand mixer to blend ingredients because it will put too much air in your dough and you will end up with benne pancakes. Also, do not bake on parchment paper. I baked them on an ungreased cookie pan and they turned out fine even though the recipe calls for a well-greased pan; your decision. Also, drop with a teaspoon but not a full teaspoon. They are great thin and crisp.
SOUTHERN BENNE WAFERS
¾ cup butter
1 ½ cups brown sugar (we use light brown sugar)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup sesame seeds (white or black)
Cream butter and sugar together. Add eggs and vanilla; mix together. Add remaining ingredients in the order given. Drop with a teaspoon onto a well-greased cookie pan about 2 inches apart to allow spreading while baking. Bake in a 325º F oven for 7-10 minutes. Makes 6-7 dozen.
Sources for this article and a guide to my garden:
(1) Sesame Grower Guide 2008, www.sesamegrowers.org
(2) Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute