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Eleusine coracana (finger millet)

Finger millet is one of the most nutritious of all the world’s cereal crops being rich in essential amino acids, iron and calcium. Finger millet also has many medicinal uses.

Eleusine coracana flowers

Eleusine coracana (finger millet)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn.

Common name: 

finger millet, African millet, koracan (English); eleusine, coracan, mil rouge (French); luco, capim colonial, nachenim (Portuguese); mwimbi, ulezi (Swahili); ragi (Kannada, Indian dialect).

Conservation status: 

Widespread in cultivation.

Habitat: 

Savannah and upland grassland.

Key Uses: 

Food, drink, bird seed, traditional medicine, fodder, thatching, paper making.

Taxonomy

Kingdom: 
Plants
Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Poales
Family: 
Poaceae
Genus: Eleusine

About this species

Finger millet (Eleusine coracana) is a variety of millet grown in the arid parts of Africa and Asia. It is one of the most nutritious of all the world’s cereal crops, containing high levels of starch, calcium, iron and methionine, an amino acid that is absent from the diets of millions of the poor who live on starchy foods such as cassava and plantain.

Finger millet is popular in dry areas because it can lie dormant for weeks. As soon as the rains come, the grain springs to life and is ready for harvesting in just 45 days.

One of the drawbacks of finger millet production is that it is labour-intensive, leading farmers to favour the production of maize, sorghum and cassava instead. In addition to this, finger millet is stigmatised as a food for the poor, a perception which has had serious health implications. In households where rice has replaced finger millet as the staple diet, nutritional deficiency and anaemia are widespread. 

Synonym: 

Eleusine indica (L.) Gaertn. subsp. coracana (L.) Lye (1999)

Genus: 
Eleusine

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Eleusine coracana is cultivated in north and central Europe, Africa, temperate Asia (western Asia, Arabia and China) and tropical Asia (India, Indo-China and Malesia), Australia and the southwestern and northwestern Pacific. 

Description

Overview: Eleusine corocana is an annual with erect stems 60-200 cm long, which clump together at the base.

Leaves: The stems are flattened and enclosed by hairy leaf sheaths. The ligule (the appendage between the sheath and the blade of the leaf) is a fringe of short hairs. The lamina (leaf blade) is up to 60 cm long and is folded upwards along the midrib. 

Flowers: The inflorescence is composed of 4-7 racemes (unbranched axes along which the spikelets are arranged). The fertile spikelets (the clustered units of flowers and bracts typical of grasses) are sessile and comprise 3-9 fertile florets. The upper and lower glumes (empty bracts that enclose the florets) are of different sizes, the lower glume is 2-5 mm long and has 1-3 veins running through it. The upper glume is 3.5 mm long, with 5-7 veins. The lemma (the outer bract which encloses the flower in a spikelet) of the fertile floret is 4mm long and lance-shaped (lanceolate) and three-veined and pointed (acute) at the apex. The sterile florets resemble the fertile florets, although they are underdeveloped. The flower contains 2 fleshy wedge-shaped lodicules (small structures at the base of the stamens). 

Fruits: The fruit is a small and round caryopsis (a fruit in which the seed is fused to an outer wall), 1.5-2.5 mm long, dark-brown in colour and exposed at maturity.

Uses

The main use of finger millet in Africa is to provide malt to make local beer and other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. For example, 'areki' is a popular Ethiopian liquor produced from finger millet.

The grains of finger millet can be ground into a flour to be used in porridge or to make 'cakes' which are then wrapped in maize husks or banana leaves and then roasted. Mashing a banana into finger millet flour and then making flat cakes to be fried or baked makes for a delicious treat.

Finger millet straw is used as fodder for cattle, sheep and goats. In Uganda by-products of beer are used to feed chickens, pigs and other animals.

Medicinally, finger millet seed is used as a prophylaxis for dysentery. In southern Africa the juice of a mixture of finger millet leaves are leaves of Plumbago zeylanica are taken as an internal remedy for leprosy.

Finger millet straw is used for thatching and plaiting and in China for paper making. In Sudan the leaves are made into string. 

Crop wild relatives of finger millet

Wild crop relatives of finger millet are an important source of genetic diversity which can improve the yield of the crop and provide resistance to diseases, such as 'blast', which is the most serious disease of finger millet. Blast resistance genes have been found in crop wild relative, Eleusine africana, commonly known as African finger millet. Some varieties of this wild relative exhibit a high protein content and are nutritionally rich in calcium. The potential of the wild relatives of finger millet to improve the crop is huge.

The Millennium Seed Bank and the Global Crop Diversity Trust is engaged in a project called 'Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change', which focuses on the wild relatives of 29 of the most important food crops, including finger millet. The project aims to protect, collect and prepare crop wild relatives for use in breeding programs so that their genetic potential can be harnessed to make our crops more resilient in the face of climate change. 

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plants worldwide, focusing on those plants which are under threat and those which are of most use in the future. Once seeds have been collected they are dried, packaged and stored at -20°C in our seed bank vault.

Photo of Basket made from finger millet, Eleusine coracana

Basket made from finger millet kept at Kew's Economic Botany Collection.

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 3.2 g
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: One
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant can be dried to low moisture contents without significantly reducing their viability. This means they are suitable for long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB)
Germination testing: Successful

This species at Kew

Pressed and dried specimens of finger millet are held in Kew's Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. Details of some of these specimens can be seen online in Kew's Herbarium Catalogue.

The Economic Botany Collection houses a number of finger millet artefacts, among them a Ugandan basket woven from the stems of finger millet. 

References and credits

Beentje, H. (2010). The Kew Plant Glossary: an Illustrated Dictionary of Plant Terms. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Brink, M. & Belay, G. (2006). Cereals and Pulses: Volume 1 of Plant Resources of Tropical Africa. PROTA.

Mabberley, D.J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: a Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses. Third edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (2008). Seed Information Database (SID). Version 7.1. Available online (accessed 23 August 2013). 

Clayton, W.D., Vorontsova, M.S., Harman, K.T. and Williamson, H. (2006 onwards). GrassBase - The Online World Grass Flora. Available online (accessed 23 August 2013)

Kew Science Editor: Sarah Cody
Kew contributors: Maria Vorontsova

Although every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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