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Sesamum indicum (Sesame)

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Eudicotyledons > Core Eudicots > Asterids > Euasterid I > Order: Lamiales > Family: Pedaliaceae > Genus: Sesamum

Believed to have been domesticated in India but by 600 BC it was being cultivated in the Middle East and came to be an important constituent in Middle Eastern foods (e.g. tahini and halvah). The seeds are eaten. They have a high oil content (40-60%) and are used to produce sesame oil. Sesame is cultivated on a small scale in southern Africa and also grows wild (naturalised).

Sesame is believed to have originated from domestication of the wild, weedy Sesamum orientale var. malabaricum in India. It is not known when domestication took place but the first evidence of sesame cultivation in India dates back to between 2250 and 1750 BC. It was later introduced to the Near East, the earliest record dating 900 - 600 BC. It was widely cultivated in the Graeco-Roman world, and was regarded as one of the main summer crops along with the millets (Zohary & Hopf 1993). In southern Africa, sesame is grown on a small scale in rural areas (van Wyk & Gericke 2000).


  • Sesame oil is extracted from the seeds (seeds contain 40-60% oil by weight) and has the advantage of keeping fresh for a long period without going rancid. Darker oil is derived from toasted sesame seeds and has a more intense flavour; hence it is more desirable for use in cooking. The oil is high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and low in saturated fats. It is mainly used in Middle Eastern, Asian and Indian cuisine, where it is used to improve flavour and aroma. As it burns quite easily, it is not favoured for use in frying.
  • Hummus, a Middle Eastern paste or dip, consists of puréed chickpeas with sesame oil, garlic and lemon.
  • Seeds are edible and often used in snack bars or sprinkled on buns or other baked goods. They are an excellent source of thiamin, riboflavin, phosphorus and iron and a good source of potassium.
  • Halvah (also spelt halva), is a confection of Middle Eastern origin and consists mainly of sesame seeds, honey and almonds.
  • Ground sesame seeds are used to make a butter-like paste termed tahini in the Middle East.


  • Anon. 2002. Encyclopedia of Foods. A Guide to Healthy Nutrition. Academic Press, San Diego, California. 

  • van Wyk, B.-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's Plants. A Guide to Useful Plants of Southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.  

  • Zohary, D. & Hopf, M. 1993. Domestication of plants in the old World - The origin and spread of cultivated plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley. Clarendon Press, Oxford.


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