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Sesame Seeds are one of the oldest spices, dating from at least 1600 BC and believed to have originated in India, then traveled to Africa and Asia. They are a tasty addition of nuttiness to many dishes, especially when toasted. They can also be made into a nutritious oil and a delicious paste called tahini. Sesame seeds and sesame products are rich in protein, B vitamins, and zinc. The seeds come in a variety of colors, from cream-white to charcoal-black, and the color of the planted seed does not represent the color of the harvested seed.
Plant Family: Sesame seeds are the seeds of an annual herb, Sesamum indicum, which is part of the Pedaliaceae plant family. You can tuck it in anywhere in your garden that has sufficient space. As a tall plant, it will create some shade, so take that into consideration. The plant also mixes well with flowers because it is so ornamental, so you might want to plant some in your flower bed.
How to Grow: In Zone 6, start the seeds indoors, using grow lights, four to six weeks before transplanting the seedlings into the garden when the danger of frost has passed. Sesame plants prefer warm air and soil, so wait until the daytime temps are regularly in the 70s before moving your seedlings outdoors. Sesame plants grow surprisingly large, so plant them 1 to 2 feet apart.
A tropical annual, sesame plants need warm soil and a long growing season (100 - 140 days). The sesame plant is not hardy at all and will slow its growth when the temperatures drop below 68 and stop growing when the temperature is 50 degrees or lower. Sesame plants can tolerate drought and high heat once established, but it will produce more seeds if irrigated. The plants produce a single upright stalk, 2 to 6 feet tall. They will benefit from staking to prevent them from falling over during storms. After pollination, flowers will develop into narrow 1- to 1½-inch-long seed pods. Flowers vary in color from white to shades of pink. Seeds are ready for harvest when the pods turn brown and begin to crack open slightly. A single pod often contains more than 100 seeds.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Ton Rulkens, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Container Friendly?: Yes, and the container must have good drainage holes. The sesame plant does not have an extensive root system, so it can tolerate various size containers. The plants should be at least 12” apart.
Try This: Interested in making your own sesame oil? First, toast the sesame seeds – see the Recipes section below. Next, add ¼ cup of cool, toasted sesame seeds and 1 cup sunflower oil (or any neutral-tasting oil) to a pan on the stovetop. Gently heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. After heating, pour the mix in a blender or food processor and pulse until well combined, forming a loose paste. Pour the mixture into a glass bowl and rest for two hours. Strain the mixture using a clean cheesecloth, muslin, or similar. Use immediately or place the strained mixture in a sterilized airtight glass container for up to three months.
How to Harvest: The seed pods at the bottom of the plant will often be ready to harvest while the flowers toward the top of the plant are still in bloom, necessitating multiple harvests toward the end of the growing season.
Carefully remove the seed pods from the plants, putting them on a flat surface to dry. Once the pods are fully dried (they will be brittle), gently open them to release the seeds. The seeds and chaff can be separated by sifting the seeds through a colander or running a fan over the seeds to blow off the dried seed pod pieces.
Common Varieties: Sesame seeds for planting can be challenging to find from seed vendors. They are available through the shop at Monticello (yes, Thomas Jefferson grew Sesame Seeds at Monticello), Fruition Seeds, and Hirt's Garden.
Recipes: Toasting sesame seeds brings out their nutty flavor and can reduce bitterness. Simply place in a dry skillet over medium heat for 3-5 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Alternatively, roast on an ungreased baking sheet at 350° for 8-10 minutes until lightly browned. Other recipes can be found here: