Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: sorghum from Environmental History and Global Change: A Dictionary of Environmental History

A genus of grasses native to tropical and subtropical regions of which one, S. Bicolour is the world’s 5th most important cereal crop. It is thought to have originated in N Africa and was recorded in ancient Egypt and Assyria. It spread to China by the C13AD and to the Americas in the early C17. It is drought tolerant and well suited to semi-arid areas. Today the USA is the largest producer followed by Nigeria, India, Mexico and Sudan.


Summary Article: sorghum
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

tall, coarse annual (Sorghum vulgare) of the family Poaceae (grass family), somewhat similar in appearance to corn (but having the grain in a panicle rather than an ear) and used for much the same purposes. Probably indigenous to Africa, it is one of the longest-cultivated plants of warm regions there and also in Asia—especially in India and China. Because of its extreme drought resistance (because of the unusually extensive branching root system) and its ability to withstand hotter climates than corn, sorghum has been introduced to the United States and other regions.

The innumerable varieties are generally classified as the sweet sorghums or sorgos, yielding sorghum syrups and molasses from the cane juice; the broomcorns, yielding a fiber from the inflorescence that is used for making brooms; the grass sorghums (e.g., Sudan grass), used for pasture and hay; and the grain sorghums, e.g., durra, feterita, kaffir or kaffir corn, kaoliang, milo or milo maize, and shallu. The pulverized grain is used for stock and poultry feeds and, in the Old World, for food. Sorghums also provide cover crops and green manures, grain substitutes for many industrial processes that employ corn, and fuel and weaving material from the stems.

In the United States, sorghum is grown throughout the Great Plains area and in Arizona and California; about half the crop is used for forage and silage and half for feed grains. Only a small amount is grown for syrup, most of which is consumed locally. Johnson grass (S. halapense), a perennial native to the Mediterranean that is similar to Sudan grass, is naturalized in the United States, especially in the Southwest. It is a noxious weed in cultivated fields but is also used as a forage crop.

Sorghum is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Cyperales, family Poaceae.

  • See bulletins of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles


Full text Article SORGHUM
Cambridge World History of Food

( see also MILLET ) There are several varieties of this Old World grass ( Sorghum vulgare = S. bicolor ) that are cultivated for grain,...

Full text Article sorghum
Philip's Encyclopedia

Tropical cereal grass native to Africa and cultivated worldwide. Types raised for grain are varieties of Sorghum vulgare that have leaves...

Full text Article Sorghum
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

A genus of annual or perennial grasses (about 30 species), native to Africa, especially S. vulgare , of which there are several varieties,...

See more from Credo