it became a crop that perhaps predates wheat. Today this plant is grown extensively in the Soviet Union and Central Asia under the name proso millet.

At least seven wild Panicum species are gathered for food in Africa.13 The most important are discussed below.

Panicum turgidum

Called afezu or merkba (Arabic), this grass produces seed that closely resembles proso millet. It was once abundant across the Sahara as well as in desert lands as far east as Pakistan. It was widespread, for example, in Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco, Egypt, and Somalia and was the primary wild grass in a vast belt across the southern Sahara. Its grain was formerly gathered in large amounts, and even today it is still harvested, at least to some extent, throughout the plant's range.

This desert species grows where few crops can. It is extremely drought tolerant, thriving in dry sands in semiarid or arid areas with annual rainfalls from 250 mm down to as little as 30 mm. It is also found in semidesert shrublands and is common among the vegetation inhabiting dried-up wadis.

A deep-rooted, clump-forming perennial, this plant forms loose tussocks I m or so in diameter. It spreads by long, looping stolons, building up mats of vegetation that are extremely useful for erosion control. (Its stems fall over and root at the nodes, clamping down the soil.) It is known to colonize wind-blown sand dunes (often while they are still moving) and can protect steep slopes. The root system is extensive, penetrating to below I m as well as radiating out horizontally more than 3.4 m in plants excavated in Somalia.

Although afezu's main nonfood use is as a sand-binder, it provides some grazing for camels, goats, and other animals. Its palatability is generally low, but its ability to grow in virtual desert conditions, together with its perennial nature, gives it great value.

This plant bears its seeds on panicles that rise above the mat. They can be easily collected by holding the seedheads over a bowl and beating them with a stick. Most of the grain collected ends up in a porridge (tébik).

Panicum laetum

The grain of this particular panic grass is regarded as a special delicacy. It was an important ingredient in kreb. People still collect it for food in many parts of West Africa, sometimes on a large enough scale that it shows up in local markets. The grains are normally crushed and eaten as a porridge.

This plant, which also occurs in massive stands, ranges from Mauritania to the Sudan and Tanzania. It is an annual, often common

13  

Jardin, 1967.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement