I remember going on the Spoon River Drive each fall with my Grandma and Grandpa Simmons. I loved visiting the old school house in London Mills and eating ham-n-beans scooped from a large cast-iron pot. Each year my Grandpa purchased his annual supply of sorghum syrup.
Sorghum is a group of plants in the grass family that includes crops, ornamentals, and weeds. As a crop, sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) is a grass plant with leaves that resemble corn leaves. It produces a flower stalk above the leaves that matures into kernels varying in color from white to red, brown, pale yellow, or deep purple-brown. Available in different cultivars, Sorghum bicolor is grown as either grain sorghum or sweet sorghum.
Grain sorghum is primarily used in the U.S. as grain or forage to feed livestock. The grain sorghum plants sometimes called "milo," are shorter with higher yields than the forage grown types. Grain sorghum plants grow two to three foot tall, whereas forage grown cultivars can reach six to twelve feet tall.
Forage sorghum plants are grown for their green material (forage), not their grain. It can also be fermented, stored in silos, and used as silage to feed livestock in the winter. Other types of grain sorghum include kaffir and broomcorn.
Sweet sorghum is varieties of sorghum with sugary sap that are used to make sorghum molasses. Sweet sorghum plants can reach ten to 14 feet tall. Both molasses from sugar cane and sorghum molasses are made by squeezing juice from the cane or stalks, which is then cooked to a syrupy consistency. It takes eight gallons of plant juice to make one gallon of sorghum molasses.
In recent year's ornamental sorghums have become available for home garden use. Similar to broom corn, they are available in earth-tone colored seed heads and grow seven to twelve feet tall. Broom corn has more fibrous seeds and is used for making brooms and whisk brooms. Both types make great wreaths and dried arrangements.
Unfortunately, the sorghum group of plants also includes some serious weeds. Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense) and Columbus grass (Sorghum almum) are very invasive perennial weeds. Both are included in the Illinois noxious weed list, meaning that they must be eradicated if growing in Illinois. Shattercane is a tall annual grass that resembles forage sorghum.
Look for gluten-free sorghum flour and molasses syrup at health food stores, festival vendor booths, and other locations near you. They make great bread, muffins, pancakes, and waffles.