Origin: India via Africa via Virginia
Improvement status: Cultivar
Seeds per packet: ~100
Germination tested 11/2022: 94%
Life cycle: Annual
This white-seeded sesame variety was no doubt introduced to Thomas Jefferson by one of the African or African-descended people whom he enslaved and forced to work the farm at his hilltop estate at Monticello, outside Charlottesville, Virginia. The seeds have long been maintained by the private foundation that continues to run Monticello, and this variety has been popularized by our friends at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (who provided stock seed to our source, Chris Smith of The Utopian Seed Project).
Sesame is often considered the world's oldest oilseed crop. The seeds are roughly 50% fat. While most Americans typically associate sesame with Asian cuisine — indeed, toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds are crucial flavors in much Korean, Chinese, and Japanese cooking — the main sesame species (Sesamum indicum) is believed to originate in India, and most other wild species come from Africa. It has been a major crop in Africa since at least the time of the Pharaohs. Even today, an African country — Sudan — produces the largest crop of sesame seeds (nearly a million tons annually).
Old sesame varieties like this one were generally referred to as "benne," which is a word from the Gullah-Geechee people (descendants of formerly enslaved people who developed a unique culture living in relative isolation on the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina). Indicative of the deep connections of Gullah-Geechee culture to the African continent (Gullah-Geechee culture is generally considered the "closest" African-American culture to Africa), the word "benne" comes directly from the word bĕne, from the Maninka language, spoken by the Malinke people of Guinea in West Africa.
Plants of 'Monticello White' (a name we would change if it wasn't already available from other sources with this name) are productive, vigorous and heat-loving.
Fun fact: The McDonald's corporation purchases 75% of Mexico's entire sesame seed crop for use on its hamburger buns.
GROWING TIPS: Start indoors a week or two before last frost. Plant out once ground has warmed (around the time you might start green beans). They grow to roughly 6-ft. tall and may benefit from staking. Harvest by cutting stalks when there are more brown pods than green. Stand upright to dry, or allow to fully dry and cut dry stalks with open pods. Turn dry stalks upside down over a tarp or cloth, shake seeds out, and winnow.