Sorghum bicolor subsp. bicolor
Origin: Darfur, Sudan
Improvement status: Cultivar
Seeds per packet: ~40
Germination tested 12/2020: 85%
Life cycle: Annual
'Korjaj' is a lovely white-seeded grain sorghum from the war-torn region of Darfur in western Sudan. EFN co-founder Nate Kleinman cut his teeth as an activist working to bring international attention and assistance to the people of Darfur during the height of the genocide there in 2004-2007, so it has been especially meaningful for him to get to know this plant. It bears mentioning that Darfur is still home to some of the most internally-displaced people of anywhere in the world. The genocide and war have left scars in Darfur that will never heal. It is our fervent hope that someday we will be able to return this sorghum to Darfuri villages where the indigenous people live in peace and security and prosperity.
This was one of the first sorghums we grew with success, and while we always approach the plant with reverence and respect, mixed with sorrow about the state of the communities where it was developed, the plant has always responded with the plant equivalent of joy. It seems to succeed wherever we try it. When other sorghums fail, this one thrives. It is an early sorghum, no doubt an adaptation for the arid climate of Darfur, but this has allowed it to perform well for us even in upstate New York (in fact, these seeds are the first sorghum produced by Nate at his farm in upstate New York).
The seeds of this sorghum are rather flatter than most, but they are bright white and tasty. Seedheads are densely packed with seeds. The plants are relatively short (between 4 and 6 feet usually), and very uniform. It has relatively sweet and juicy stalks, so might be good as a dual-use sorghum, but we haven't tried making syrup from it yet (largely because the stalks are relatively short). The unripe seed-heads, harvested when still green — as in one of the photos here — can be threshed by hand by holding them in a pillowcase and beating them with a broomstick, then the green seeds are boiled or steamed to make an utterly delicious food. (In India, green sorghum prepared like this is called "ponk," but it is also eaten green in Sudan and South Sudan, and probably other places as well.)
Our original source for the seeds was the USDA, and the variety has been in the USDA's collection for over 70 years, since it was collected by a plant explorer named C.O. Grassl. He was in Sudan in 1945 as part of a massive USDA seed collection program. The original aim of the program, delayed by World War II, was to find varieties for crossing with the common sweet sorghums of the time. Those were good for syrup, but the stalk juice didn't crystallize well, so it wasn't a viable alternative to sugarcane or beets, and the USDA hoped to find or create varieties with sugar that would crystallize.
During the war, expeditions to Africa looking for sorghum germplasm took on renewed urgency as millions of gallons of alcohol were produced from sorghum for use in the production of explosives, but with yields that didn't meet expectations. A sorghum breeding program was then seen as critical to national security.
A sugar expert called E.W. Brandes led an expedition to Ethiopia while the war still raged, at the end of 1943. The 80 varieties he brought back ultimately produced promising dual-use sugar/alcohol sorghum, but by then the war was over. Grassl's post-war expedition across sub-Saharan Africa yielded over 1000 varieties, more than 500 of which are still maintained by the USDA. Believe it or not, these are a drop in the bucket in terms of overall sorghum diversity in Africa. Tantalizingly, these and many other sorghums collected by the USDA over the decades since the war have been neither studied nor bred to the extent envisioned by men like Grassl and Brandes, who risked death by Luftwaffe to find them.
We are excited to be releasing this variety to American growers for the first time — as we did years ago with our favorite sorghum, 'Coral' (from another place devastated by war, the town of Malakal, South Sudan). We have every expectation that this variety will join 'Coral' as a must-grow for people who love sorghum as much as we do. But we urge you to approach it with the same reverence and respect as we do. It will reward you if you do.
[Photo of single grain-head is courtesy Rob Cardillo.]