Prota 14: Vegetable oils/Oléagineux
Sp. pl. 2: 634 (1753).
2n = 26
Sesamum orientale L. (1753).
Sesame, benne, benniseed, gingelly (En). Sésame (Fr). Gergelim, gimgelim, sésamo (Po). Simsim, ufuta, wangila (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Since antiquity, sesame has been used as a valued oil crop. Its origin has been disputed for more than a century. It has long been believed that it was domesticated in Africa, but interspecific hybridization and chemical evidence indicate that sesame was domesticated on the Indian subcontinent. Sesame seed found in an excavation at Harappa (Pakistan) was dated at 2000 BC. Sesame was taken to Mesopotamia in the Early Bronze Age and by 2000 BC it was a crop of great importance there. Mesopotamia became the main centre of distribution of sesame into the Mediterranean. By the second century BC it was a prominent oil crop in China. Its introduction into tropical Africa is poorly documented. Sesame was a valuable cargo in the trade between India and the Mediterranean along the southern Arabian and Red Sea coasts in the 2nd century BC and it must have been known by that time in the Horn of Africa.
Sesame seed, paste and oil are utilized in a very wide range of edible products. Crude sesame oil pressed from the seed can be used directly as cooking oil, while refined oil is used as a salad oil or wherever an edible oil of good keeping quality is needed. Sesame seeds are used in various food preparations, raw or roasted. Throughout the Arab world the seed is crushed into a tasty paste called ‘tahini’. The mixture of seeds with sugar and flour is called ‘halva’. Toasted seeds are consumed in soups or, mixed with caramelized sugar can be shaped into candies. Seeds are often sprinkled on cakes, rolls and cookies before baking. Oil is used in the manufacture of margarine and compound cooking fats. As salad oil it is often combined with other edible oils. In India the oil is used as a component of vegetable ghee and for anointing hair and skin. It is further used as a carrier for medicines and perfumes and as a synergist for pyrethrin-based insecticides. Poor grades are used in the production of soaps, paints, lubricants and lamp-oil. Sesame cake is an excellent livestock feed and a raw material for several foodstuffs. Young leaves are used as a soup vegetable in sub-Saharan Africa. In southern Africa the leaves are smoked as a substitute for tobacco. The ash of the stem is a substitute for salt, and is viewed as a good source of minerals. Dry stalks are used as fuel and as construction material, for building shelters. Various plant parts are used in native medicine in Africa and Asia for a variety of ailments. Mucilaginous leaves or leaf sap are used to treat fever, as a remedy for cough and sore eyes and to kill head lice; the sap is taken to facilitate childbirth, to treat dysentery and gonorrhoea and is used in dressings after circumcision. In eastern and southern Africa the leaves play a role in the treatment of snakebites and malaria, in India and China in the treatment of cancers. Ash from burned stems is used as a medicinal salt. The oil is used to treat cough and earache, and as an emmenagogue and abortifacient. Sesame seeds are valued for their laxative effect.
Production and international trade
World production of sesame seed gradually increased from 1.5 million t/year in the 1960s to 3.2 million t/year (from 2.7 million ha)
in 2005, due to an increasing demand for sesame oil worldwide. Over this period, annual international trade in sesame seed increased from 150,000 t to 800,000 t, although it has been replaced for several purposes by other more easily and cheaply produced oilseeds. Africa produced an estimated 25% of the total world production over this period and contributed nearly 40% of world exports. In the period 2002–2005, China (730,000 t/year from 690,000 ha) and India (650,000 t/year from 1.5 million ha) were the main producers, followed by Myanmar (500,000 t/year from 1.3 million ha), Sudan (260,000 t/year from 1.6 million ha) and Uganda (110,000 t/year from 210,000 ha). Other important producers in Africa are Nigeria (75,000 t/year), Ethiopia (50,000 t/year), Central African Republic (42,000 t/year), Tanzania (41,000 t/year) and Chad (35,000 t/year). In recent years production has been increasing strongly in Ethiopia. In 2000–2003 the main exporting countries were Sudan (175,000 t/year), India (175,000 t/year), China (105,000 t/year) and Ethiopia (50,000 t/year); the main importers are Japan (about 150,000 t/year), South Korea (65,000–80,000 t/year) and China (45,000–100,000 t/year). Practically all world trade in sesame is as seed, and only minor quantities of oil and cake are shipped.
Dry decorticated sesame seed contains per 100 g edible portion: water 3.8 g, energy 2640 kJ (631 kcal), protein 20.5 g, fat 60.2 g, carbohydrate 11.7 g, dietary fibre 11.6 g, Ca 60 mg, Mg 345 mg, P 667 mg, Fe 6.4 mg, Zn 6.7 mg, vitamin A 9 IU, thiamin 0.70 mg, riboflavin 0.09 mg, niacin 5.80 mg, folate 115 μg, and no ascorbic acid (USDA, 2005). The seed is rich in phytic and oxalic acid, which on chelating with calcium create a slightly bitter taste. Crude sesame oil varies from dark to pale yellow while the refined oil is clear, pale yellow and has a nutty flavour. It consists of glycerides of oleic acid (36–54%) and linoleic acid (38–49%); other components are the saturated fatty acids: myristic acid (0.1% or less), palmitic acid (8–12%), stearic acid (3.5–7%) and arachidic acid (0.5–1%). The oil contains 1.2% unsaponifiable matter that includes tocopherols, and lignans including sesamin (0.1–0.6%), sesamolin (0.25–0.3%), sesamol and sesaminol, which give the oil its resistance to oxidation. Extracted sesame cake varies in colour from light yellow to greyish black depending on the dominant seed coat colour. Its chemical composition is also variable depending on seed type, method of oil extraction and whether or not the seed was decorticated. The protein content of sesame cake ranges from 35% (expeller-pressed, unhulled) to 47% (hexane-extracted, decorticated). The cake is rich in calcium and phosphate, but poor in lysine. Crude fibre content in cake from unhulled seed is 5–6%, but only about 3% in cake from hulled seed.
The consumption of sesame products may cause a not very common but serious food allergy. The main allergens are seed proteins. Allergy develops mostly during adolescence or in adults and is progressive.
Erect, stout, aromatic, annual herb up to 2 m tall; root system with strongly tapering taproot up to 90 cm long, bearing many laterals; stem firm, square with ribs at each corner, up to 3 cm in diameter at base, bright pale green, sparsely hairy to glabrous, with 4-celled glands present on all parts. Leaves decussately opposite in lower parts, arranged spirally and 3-lobed to 3-foliolate in upper parts; stipules absent; petiole up to 17 cm long, grooved above, at least at base; blade of lowest leaves ovate in outline, 10–21 cm × 5–13 cm, margin entire or partly toothed, higher leaves with narrowly elliptical lobes or leaflets 9–17 cm × 3–7 cm, margin entire or toothed, highest leaves narrowly elliptical, 5–15 cm × 1–3 cm, margin entire. Flowers in small fascicles in upper leaf axils, bisexual, zygomorphic, 5-merous, with 2 bracts at base, each bract with an axillary gland; calyx with oblong lobes 4–7 mm × 1–1.5 mm, slightly fused at base, apex acute, long-hairy; corolla campanulate, 2–3.5 cm long, base slightly bent and widened, slightly 5-lobed, with lobes c. 1 mm long, lowest lobe longer, white to violet, throat often yellow and spotted purple; stamens 4, inserted near base of corolla tube and included, the upper 2 shorter than the lower 2, with a staminode between the upper stamens; ovary superior, oblong-quadrangular, c. 5 mm × 2 mm, greyish hairy, 2-celled but each cell divided by a false septum almost to the apex; style 1 cm long, with 2-lobed stigma. Fruit an oblong-quadrangular capsule 1.5–3 cm long, hairy, with a short triangular beak at apex, grey-brown at maturity, loculicidally dehiscent, many seeded. Seeds flattened obovoid, 2–3 mm long, 0.5–1 mm thick, narrowly ridged all round, rather smooth, white, ivory, grey, beige, brown, red or black. Seedling with epigeal germination.
Other botanical information
Sesamum comprises about 20 species, most of which are indigenous to tropical Africa. A few of the African species have spread to Asia and South America. Molecular analysis and the occurrence of fully fertile hybrids confirm the proximity between Sesamum indicum and its progenitor Sesamum malabaricum Burm. Both species have the same chromosome number. Two scientific names have long been used for sesame: Sesamum orientale and Sesamum indicum, but in 2005 the name Sesamum indicum was conserved against Sesamum orientale.
Many cultivars of sesame exist. Characters which may distinguish cultivars include branching habit (branched or unbranched), leaf morphology (divided basal leaves or leaves lanceolate throughout), fruit dehiscence (dehiscent, partially dehiscent or indehiscent), and seed colour (white, ivory, grey, beige, brown, red, black).
Growth and development
Germination of sesame seed is moderately slow and seedlings grow slowly until they reach a height of 10 cm; thereafter, growth is rapid. Branches develop when the plant is 25 cm tall. The degree of branching is cultivar-specific and non-branching cultivars exist. Roots of single-stemmed cultivars generally elongate more rapidly than those of branched ones, while the latter spread more quickly. Initial growth rates of sesame roots tend to be slower than those of groundnuts, maize or sorghum. Red-seeded cultivars of Kordofan (Sudan) are well known for their rapid root growth. Growth habit is generally indeterminate, but determinate cultivars have been selected. Flowers arise in leaf axils on the upper stem and branches, and the node number on the main shoot at which the first flower is produced is a highly heritable cultivar characteristic. Most flowers open at 5–7 a.m., wilt after midday, and are shed at 4–6 p.m. Pollen is released shortly after the flowers open; the interval between flower opening and pollen release is a cultivar characteristic. The stigma is receptive one day before flower opening and remains receptive for another day. Under natural conditions, pollen remains viable for 24 hours. Flowers are mostly self-pollinated, but cross-pollination is possible and may reach 50%. Depending on cultivar, the crop matures in 75–150 days after sowing. Capsules near the stem base normally ripen first, those nearest the tip ripen last. Active dry matter accumulation and synthesis of oil occur 12–24 days after fruit set, but continue at a reduced rate up to 27 days, with a slight fall in oil content before maturity. The free fatty acid percentage is highest at the beginning of synthesis, declines rapidly around 18–22 days and then more gradually until seed maturity. In most cultivars, dry mature fruits split open and seeds are shattered.
Sesame is a crop of the tropics and subtropics, but summer planting and newer cultivars have extended its range into more temperate regions. It occurs mainly between 25°S and 25°N, but up to 40°N in China, Russia and the United States, 30°S in Australia and 35°S in South America. Sesame is sensitive to low temperatures and for this reason it is grown from sea-level to 1500 m, but in Kenya it is grown experimentally up to 1800 m altitude. Sesame is a short-day plant, but certain cultivars have become adapted to different photoperiods. With 10-hour days it will normally flower in 42–45 days after sowing. Temperature and moisture have major modifying effects on the number of days to flowering. High temperatures are required for optimal growth and production. Temperatures around 30°C encourage germination, initial growth and flower formation, but up to 40°C will be tolerated by specific cultivars. Temperatures below 20°C normally delay germination and seedling growth, and temperatures below 10°C inhibit both. Established plants can withstand high moisture stress, but seedlings are extremely susceptible. Sesame produces an excellent crop with a rainfall of 500–650 mm evenly distributed during the growing season. Ideally, 35% of rain should fall during germination until first bud formation, 45% until main flowering and 20% at seed filling. Rain should cease as first capsules begin to ripen. Heavy rain at flowering drastically reduces yield. Sesame is very susceptible to waterlogging. After stem elongation it is also susceptible to wind damage. Sesame thrives on moderately fertile and well-drained soils with pH ranging from 5.5 to 8.0, but most cultivars are sensitive to salinity. Growth and subsequent yield will be depressed on gravelly or sandy soils due to their poor moisture retention.
Propagation and planting
Sesame is propagated by seed. Sesame seeds are very small, 1000 seeds weighing 2–4 g. Sesame seed can be stored for up to 2 years with little loss of viability provided it is dried to below 8% moisture content and kept in airtight containers. Seed intended for sowing should be cleaned thoroughly to remove debris and poorly filled seeds, and treated with an insecticide. Thorough seedbed preparation is desirable; land preparation as for small grains is usually adequate. Level land is important to ensure an even depth of planting but land may be ridged for better drainage in areas where high-intensity storms are common. Immediately before planting, the land should be harrowed to kill weeds since weed control while sesame plants are small is difficult. Depth of planting is usually 2–5 cm, but can be 10 cm in loose soil. Soil should not be compacted after sowing. Even depth of planting ensures even crop emergence and growth, which facilitates subsequent tillage operations and harvesting.
As sesame is mostly a smallholder crop, sowing is usually done by hand. The seeds are often mixed with dry sand or earth to increase the volume and ensure an even seed distribution. A common seed/sand ratio is 1/3. Seed rates of 2–10 kg per ha are used in pure stands. In intercropping, the seed rate depends on the component crops in the mixture and farmer’s objectives. Plant population is greatly affected by the degree of seedbed preparation and by the weather. Branching cultivars of sesame are very adaptive to spacing and yield well at densities ranging from 30,000–35,000 plants/ha. In Tanzania the highest yields in pure stands are obtained with plant populations of 170,000–200,000 plants/ha. When seeds are drilled in rows, a spacing of 35–50 cm between rows is recommended.
Much labour is required within 2 weeks after emergence to thin seedlings to the recommended density of 10 cm between plants. Early weed control is important, and 2–3 rounds of shallow weeding are usually adequate. In Ethiopia one hand weeding increased yield of irrigated sesame by 80%. Good weed control is necessary as sesame grows slowly at first and does not compete well with weeds when young. Weeding is done by hand or with hoes; several herbicides are effective, but these are seldom used by smallholder farmers. Mechanical weeding should be done as shallow as possible to avoid damage to the roots. Growth is rapid once plants are 10 cm tall and little weeding is needed thereafter. Close row spacing can reduce late weed growth, which may be troublesome at harvest. Sesame is frequently intercropped in smallholder fields. Strip cropping with maize and sorghum is common, and protects sesame from strong winds.
The amount of nutrients removed by a crop per t seed is estimated at 30 kg N, 14 kg P and 5.5 kg K. Where sesame is grown on a large scale, NPK mixtures of 5:10:5, 12:12:6, and 10:14:10 at a rate of 500–700 kg per ha are commonly applied at planting. Most smallholders rarely apply fertilizer to the crop. Application of both nitrogen and phosphorus is essential on poor soils, but potassium is seldom required. In southern Tanzania applications of 20–30 kg of N and 10–15 kg of P per ha give a fair chance of an economic return. Irrigated sesame requires the equivalent of 900–1000 mm rain for optimum yields. In Asia sesame is often grown as a second crop after rice, and is then sown in the rice stubble. Besides residual soil moisture only a single irrigation is required.
Diseases and pests
The most serious diseases of sesame include leaf spot diseases caused by the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae pv. sesami (synonym: Pseudomonas sesami) and the fungi Cercospora sesami and Alternaria sesami. These attack not only leaves, but also stems and green capsules. Alternaria sesami also causes seedling blight. Other serious diseases include blight or black shank (Phytophthora nicotianae), charcoal rot (Macrophomina phaseolina), Fusarium wilt (Fusarium oxysporum) and powdery mildew (Oidium erysiphoides and Sphaerotheca fuliginea). Sesame phyllody, a mycoplasma disease, causes serious damage mainly in India and Myanmar, but also in Africa. The plants become stunted and the inflorescence is changed into a growth of short, twisted leaves. Important virus diseases include cowpea aphid-borne mosaic virus (CABMV), tobacco leaf curl virus (TLCV) and peanut mottle virus (PeMoV). Sesame is generally not affected by nematodes, although damage by Heterodera cajani and Pratylenchus penetrans has been reported. Sesame is actually used to control nematode pests of other crops.
There is a great variation in the relative importance of insect pests in different African countries. Insects attacking flowers and young fruits are considered serious pests in some countries, e.g. in Sudan, while in others, e.g. in Tanzania, insects that attack foliage may cause substantial yield losses. Although sesame is attacked by a large number of insects, only 2 are consistently reported to cause serious economic damage: sesame webworm (Antigastra catalaunalis) which occurs in Africa and South Asia, and sesame gall midge (Asphondylia sesami) restricted to East Africa and southern India. Antigastra caterpillars roll up young leaves, web them together with silk and feed inside them. They also bore into young capsules. Larvae of Asphondylia feed on flower buds and young capsules, causing gall formation. Sesame flea beetle (Alocypha bimaculata) is the most devastating pest in south-eastern Tanzania where it attacks the foliage during the early growth stages. It has also been reported from Uganda. Cutworms (Agrotis spp.), devil grasshopper (Diabolocatantops axillaris), armyworm (Helicoverpa fletcheri) and green stink bug (Nezara viridula) occasionally cause damage, also in Africa. In stored sesame seed, khapra beetle (Trogoderma granarium) and bean weevil (Callosobruchus analis) are common.
Good crop management, including seed treatment, crop rotation, timely sowing and the use of resistant cultivars, will generally minimize the effect of leaf spot diseases and insect pests. A number of chemicals have been recommended to control diseases and insect pests but these may not be economical for smallholders. In Tanzania sesame flea beetle, for example, is controlled by spraying the young leaves with the insecticide Karate (a.i. λ -cyhalothrine) at a rate of 5 ml per litre of water. Endosulfan spraying at 5 ml per litre of water, applied weekly for three weeks, is normally effective in controlling webworm.
Sesame is harvested 75–150 days after sowing, most commonly at 100–110 days. At maturity, leaves and stems change from green to yellow. Capsules ripen from the base of the plant to the top. Plants must be harvested before all capsules are mature, since field losses due to shattering can reach 75%, while even non-shattering types may lose 25%. Smallholder crops are usually harvested by hand and allowed to dry in stooks. After drying, sesame bundles are taken to the threshing floor, threshed and winnowed. The cleaned seed is kept in gunny bags. Non-shattering cultivars can be directly combine harvested provided this is carefully done by specially modified machines, or cut by a mower to allow the plants to dry, followed by a combine fitted with a pick-up reel. Threshing equipment should be set to a low drum speed and a wide spacing between drum and concave to avoid damage to the seed.
Seed yield is directly related to cultivar and environment. The total number of capsules is most closely correlated with seed yield, followed by the number of branches. The number of seeds per capsule, their weight, oil content and other constituents vary with capsule position, irrespective of cultivar. Seed yields of smallholder farmers seldom exceed 500 kg/ha when planted in pure stands. However, under intensive, high-input production yields can be as high as 2000 kg/ha.
Handling after harvest
Sesame seed of less than 8% moisture content can be stored for up to 2 years in airtight containers. Bulk storage of clean and dry seed presents few problems, but seed that is damaged or contaminated by extraneous material produces discoloured or rancid oil. Sesame seed is mostly processed with the seed coats, although hulled seed produces higher quality oil and meal. Oil is extracted traditionally at household level by crushing the seeds with a grindstone, and thereafter pouring boiling water over the mass and skimming off the oil. This method is extremely inefficient and produces oil with poor storage quality. Hand-operated presses have recently been introduced in East Africa to improve the extraction process at village level. Large-scale oil extraction is done in 3 consecutive phases. The first cold pressing produces high-quality oil. The residue from this process is heated and pressed to yield coloured oil that must be refined first before being used for consumption. Further extraction of the residue gives oil that cannot be used for human consumption. Crude oil is filtered to remove impurities such as suspended meal and free fatty acids. The oil is often also bleached and deodorized to transform it into light-coloured and bland oil.
Sesame is rich in genetic variability and much collection still needs to be done. The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi (India) now maintains about 10,000 sesame accessions, including 2500 accessions from outside India. Other large collections are held at the Institute of Crop Science (CAAS), Beijing (China) with 4100 accessions, the N.I. Vavilov All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Plant Industry, St. Petersburg (Russian Federation) with 1500 accessions, the National Genebank of Kenya, KARI, Maguga (Kenya) with 1325 accessions, the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (CENIAP-INIA), Maracay (Venezuela) with 1250 accessions, the Plant Genetic Resources Conservation Unit, USDA-ARS, Griffin GA (United States) with 1200 accessions; other collections are maintained e.g. in Israel, Korea and Nigeria. The collections contain many duplicates and smaller core collections are being made of well-identified and evaluated material.
Among the breeding objectives for sesame are higher yields, improved plant architecture, adapted crop duration, resistance to diseases and pests and indehiscent capsules. The degree of dehiscence is a cultivar characteristic and of great importance for mechanized harvesting. The discovery in 1943 of an indehiscent mutant produced non-shattering cultivars that were, however, difficult to thresh. The introduction of paper-shell capsules into indehiscent plants helped to solve this problem. Plants with partially dehiscent fruits that open slightly but generally retain their seed have also been identified. Cultivars developed by Sesaco Corporation (San Antonio, Texas, United States) are of this type. Plant height to the first capsule is another cultivar characteristic that is important for mechanical harvesting. The discovery of genetic male sterility in sesame eased the production of hybrid seed. Induced mutations play an important role in sesame breeding. A widely grown cultivar of Korea named ‘Ahnsankkae’ has X-ray-induced disease resistance. A mutant named ‘dt45’, with determinate growth and capsules clustered near the top, was detected in Israel. The apical capsules are often composed of 4 carpels instead of 2, and have large seeds. The modified gene has been incorporated into new cultivars.
Interspecific hybridization is possible, and crosses may produce viable seeds. Hybrids are partially fertile. Polyploidy can be induced, but colchicine-treated seeds tend to produce low yields, although the growth rate and general vigour of tetraploids can exceed those of diploids.
Although sesame is an ancient crop, there is ample scope for improvement. The oil with its characteristic taste and excellent cooking and keeping qualities, is highly appreciated in many parts of the world, including Africa. As an annual oilseed crop well adapted to dry tropical conditions, its importance in Africa shows great promise.
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Sources of illustration
• Weiss, E.A. & de la Cruz, Q.D., 2001. Sesamum orientale L. In: van der Vossen, H.A.M. & Umali, B.E. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 14. Vegetable oils and fats. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 123–128.
Correct citation of this article:
Mkamilo, G.S. & Bedigian, D., 2007. Sesamum indicum L. In: van der Vossen, H.A.M. & Mkamilo, G.S. (Editors). PROTA 14: Vegetable oils/Oléagineux. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
1, flowering branch; 2, opened corolla; 3, cross section of ovary; 4, fruit; 5, seeds.
flowering and fruiting plant
close up of fruits
longitudinal and cross section of fruits
leaf vegetable, flowering plants