What Are Millets?

Finger Millet
Finger Millet (Eleusine coracana)

The green foxtail millet (Setaria virids) that is the focus of this research project is just one species of a large and diverse group of plants called millets. Simply put, millets are grasses that produce small seeds. The origin of the millets can be linked to western Africa, however they can now be found in many parts of the world. Some millets are cultivated as a food source and have been done so for thousands of years. They are particularly important in developing Asian and African countries. The millet most commonly used for food production is pearl millet, which is a popular food grain in India and many parts of Africa. Other important crop millets grown in the developing world include finger millet, proso millet, and foxtail millet.

Millet sold as bird seed.
Millet sold as bird seed.

In developed countries, millets are not as commonly used as a food source. In the United States, for example, millets can most commonly be found in bird seed.

Pearl Millet
Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum)

The millet family is quite diverse in appearance. Some species can be as small as one to two feet while others can be as tall as 12 feet high. The appearance and color of the seeds can also vary among species, where some can be more spherical and white while others are more hexagonal and purple. In addition to seed shape and color, the panicles in which the seeds form also can vary significantly. Pearl millet, for example produces one panicle per plant, while finger millet can produce as many as a half dozen on a single plant. The great diversity that can be found within millets makes it a great research tool to study evolution and other interesting biological questions.

Contributed by Tim Anderson, PhD

Where plant science research meets the classroom