Like most culinary Sorghum strains, White African (Sorghum bicolor) is a tall, leafy cereal grass that somewhat resembles a corn stalk, with a strong central shaft and large opposing lanceolate and folded leaves. It produces roughly three meter tall stalks; the name comes from its large white seeds, which are enclosed by large black glumes. White African sorghum’s vulnerability to mildew and mosaic virus makes growing extensive acreage unwise, so it is invariably grown in 1-10 acre patches.
The waxy coating on the plant’s leaves helps the plant retain water, an adaptation helpful in seasons and locales of intense heat. Also highly drought-tolerant, White African sorghum grows in harsh environments where other plants tend not to flourish. In the United States, sorghum can be found in Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi, and a few other states.
White African sorghum was first grown in the United States in the mid-1850s by Anglo-Indian sugar planter Leonard Wray from Natal, South Africa, where it was originally domesticated. Governor J. Hammond of South Carolina was the first American planter to grow this variety extensively, under the name Enyama Imphee. From 1856 to 1861 it was an experimental plant, and 15 distinctive Imphee strains were developed. When the Civil War broke out, the Union states were cut off from their usual sources of sugar in Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida: but cold-tolerant sorghum could be grown as far north as Michigan. It was instantly embraced by farmers. In the Confederacy, the battle of Vicksburg in July 1863 disrupted the southern supply system as well. Shortly afterwards, sorghum became the most widely grown crop other than corn in the United States, and the taste for sorghum syrup that people developed during the Civil War survived after the Battle of Appomattox. Also, the leaves could be used as fodder, so White African sorghum’s appeal as a multi-purpose farm plant was clear.
When sugar cane production recovered, and beet sugar production boomed in the 1880s, many of the original 15 Imphee strains of sorghum were abandoned. Only the four tastiest and most productive survived into the 19th century, supplemented by several hybrid varieties. By the 21st century, of those original fifteen varieties, only White African sorghum has survived as a distinct strain. It is a favorite of gardeners and farmers in the South because of its durability in the field and its quality as syrup, as fodder, and as meal. The plant is useful as a grain crop because its seeds can be ground for flour, and its stalks can be pressed or boiled to concoct a sweet, savory syrup.
Furthermore, though sorghum has a low profile in much of the United States, it is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world. Sorghum bicolor can form a cornerstone of food security, and its growth is vital to the survival of farmers. Sorghum is becoming more popular in the United States as the gluten-free product becomes increasingly attractive in the face of climbing diagnoses of celiac disease.
Today in the American South, White African sorghum remains integral to local economies and foodways. Mississippi State University maintains foundation seed for artisan syrup production efforts, and the crop and its syrup product have made a comeback.