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Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is well-adapted to poor, droughty and infertile soils and is therefore a vital subsistence crop in countries surrounding the Sahara Desert and in western Africa where soils are tough and rainfall is low. As climate change continues to affect weather and rainfall patterns, pearl millet is likely to become increasingly important as a crop for the future. In addition to being an important food source, pearl millet has a number of medicinal applications.

Pennisetum glaucum (pearl millet)


Bernal, R., Gradstein, S.R. & Celis, M. (eds.). 2015. Catálogo de plantas y líquenes de Colombia. Instituto de Ciencias Naturales, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá.

Naturalizada en Colombia.
Morphology General Habit
No Evaluada


Kew Species Profiles

General Description

Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is well-adapted to poor, droughty and infertile soils and is therefore a vital subsistence crop in countries surrounding the Sahara Desert and in western Africa where soils are tough and rainfall is low. As climate change continues to affect weather and rainfall patterns, pearl millet is likely to become increasingly important as a crop for the future. In addition to being an important food source, pearl millet has a number of medicinal applications.

Species Profile
Geography and distribution

Pennisetum glaucum is cultivated in Eastern Europe, Africa, temperate Asia (western Asia, Arabia and China) and tropical Asia (India and Indo-China), Australia, South America, Caribbean.

Pearl millet was first domesticated in the Sahel region 4,000 to 5,000 years ago from its wild ancestor, Pennisetum violaceum . From the Sahel it spread to East Africa and southern Africa and later to the Indian subcontinent. It reached the Americas by the 18th century.

Pearl millet is cultivated as a grain crop mainly in the semi-arid regions of West Africa as well as in the driest parts of East and southern Africa and the Indian subcontinent. It is popularly grown as a fodder crop in Brazil, the US, South Africa and Australia. 


Overview:  Pennisetum glaucum  is an annual with erect, robust stems 150-300 cm long. The nodes along the stem are bearded and the ligule (the appendage between the sheath and the blade of the leaf) is a fringe of hairs.

Leaves: Leaf blades are 50-100 cm long and up to 70 mm wide.  

Flowers: The inflorescence is a panicle (a compound of axes, known as racemes, along which the spikelets are arranged - spikelets are the clustered unit of flowers and bracts typical of grasses). Beneath each spikelet is a whorl of bristles. Spikelets are 3-6 mm long and comprise one basal sterile floret and one fertile floret. Each floret is enclosed by bracts, known as glumes, of different sizes, the lower one obscure and the upper one 0.5-2.0 mm long. The flower has three anthers and the styles are joined at the base. The flower does not contain lodicules (small structures at the base of the stamens). 

Fruits: The fruit is a caryopsis (a fruit in which the seed is fused to an outer wall) 2.0-5.5 mm long which is exposed at maturity.


100 million people in parts of tropical Africa and India depend on pearl millet as their staple food source. Pearl millet can be prepared in a variety of different ways: 

The grains can be boiled or steamed directly, or ground into a flour to make bread, porridge or couscous.Pearl millet and pulses can be seasoned to make delicious snacks popular in Africa.The grain is also used in the making of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Millet beer, for example is often considered a staple of religious and social life in Africa.Pearl millet is high in protein which makes it an excellent feed for poultry and other livestock.

The stems of the plant are used for fencing, thatching and building materials. The red and purple varieties of pearl millet are used for making dyes for leather and wood.

Pearl millet also has a number of medicinal applications. In African traditional medicine the grain is used to treat chest disorders, leprosy, blennorrhoea and poisonings. A decoction made from the roots is used in the treatment of jaundice and the vapour from inflorescence extracts is inhaled for respiratory diseases in children. 

Pearl millet has been found to be effective in suppressing root-lesion nematodes ( Pratylenchus penetrans ) and is being used as an alternative to soil fumigation in tobacco and potato cropping in Canada.

Pearl millet grains are used in rituals in some areas.

Crop wild relatives of pearl millet

Millets are better adapted to poor, droughty and infertile soils than most other grain crops. Even so, lower and erratic rainfall patterns are the cause of major problems and diseases, such as downy mildew, which can destroy as much as 80% of the crop. Wild relatives of pearl millet were screened for traits such as drought- and disease-resistance and were then bred with cultivated varieties that demonstrated high yield and other positive traits. An improved strain of the crop was released in 2005 by the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University for cultivation throughout India and further work is being done to transfer these valuable traits into other varieties worldwide.

Pennisetum squamulatum is a relative of pearl millet that is endangered in the wild and is therefore a conservation priority. Efforts are being made by the Millennium Seed Bank and the Global Crop Diversity Trust to collect the seeds of the wild relatives of 29 of the most important food crops. The project is called 'Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change' and by protecting, collecting and preparing crop wild relatives such as  Pennisetum squamulatum for use in breeding programs, 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.

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 7.1 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 pearl 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.

Egypt, Mali, Niger
Well drained loamy to sandy soils.
Widespread in cultivation.


Gramineae, W. D. Clayton. Flora Zambesiaca 10:3. 1989

Morphology Culms
Culms stout, up to 3 m. high.
Morphology Leaves Leaf lamina
Leaf laminae up to 1 m. long and 7 cm. wide.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Inflorescences
Panicle 4 cm.–2 m. long, subglobose to linear; rhachis cylindrical, villous; involucre persistent, borne upon a stipe 1–25 mm. long, enclosing 1–9 spikelets; bristles glabrous or plumose.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Inflorescences Spikelets
Spikelets 3–6 mm. long.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Inflorescences Bracts Lemma
Both lemmas usually pubescent on the margins.

Morphology General Habit
Annual. Culms erect; robust; 150-300 cm long. Culm-nodes bearded. Ligule a fringe of hairs. Leaf-blades 50-100 cm long; 8-70 mm wide.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Inflorescences
Inflorescence a panicle. Peduncle pubescent above. Panicle spiciform; linear, or elliptic, or ovate; 4-200 cm long; 0.8-5.5 cm wide. Primary panicle branches accrescent to a central axis; with lateral stumps on axis. Panicle axis terete; pubescent. Spikelets subtended by an involucre. Fertile spikelets pedicelled; 1-9 in the cluster. Involucre composed of bristles; oblong; 2-7 mm long; base bluntly stipitate (1.1-25mm). Involucral bristles persistent; numerous; with an outer whorl of thinner bristles; inner bristles longer than outer; with longest bristle scarcely emergent, or with one conspicuously longer bristle; 12-26 mm long; terete; flexible; glabrous, or ciliate.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Inflorescences Spikelets
Spikelets comprising 1 basal sterile florets; 1 fertile florets; without rhachilla extension. Spikelets obovate; dorsally compressed; 3-6 mm long; persistent on plant.
Spikelets comprising 1 basal sterile florets; 1 fertile florets; without rhachilla extension. Spikelets obovate; dorsally compressed; 3-6 mm long; persistent on plant.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Inflorescences Bracts Glume
Glumes one the lower absent or obscure; shorter than spikelet; thinner than fertile lemma. Upper glume oblong; 0.5-2 mm long; 0.15-0.33 length of spikelet; membranous; without keels; 0-3 -veined. Upper glume apex obtuse, or acute.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Flowers Florets
Basal sterile florets male, or barren; with palea, or without significant palea. Lemma of lower sterile floret lanceolate, or oblong; 1.5-4.5 mm long; 0.5-0.75 length of spikelet; chartaceous; 5-7 -veined; ciliolate on margins; emarginate, or obtuse; muticous, or mucronate. Fertile lemma ovate; 1.4-4 mm long; coriaceous; without keel; 5-7(-9) -veined. Lemma margins flat; pubescent. Lemma apex emarginate, or obtuse. Palea coriaceous.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Flowers
Lodicules absent. Anthers 3; anther tip penicillate. Styles connate below.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Fruits
Caryopsis with adherent pericarp; obovoid; exposed between gaping lemma and palea at maturity; 2-5.5 mm long.
Europe: eastern. Africa: north, west tropical, west-central tropical, northeast tropical, east tropical, southern tropical, south, and western Indian ocean. Asia-temperate: western Asia, Arabia, and China. Asia-tropical: India and Indo-China. Australasia: Australia. South America: Caribbean.
Paniceae. Brunken.

Food and drink, fodder crop, dye, construction materials, medicinal, silage, haymaking, grazing.

Native to:

Angola, Benin, Burkina, Cameroon, Central African Repu, Chad, Congo, Gabon, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Togo, Zambia, Zaïre

Extinct in:


Introduced into:

Afghanistan, Alabama, Amur, Andaman Is., Argentina Northeast, Argentina Northwest, Argentina South, Arizona, Arkansas, Assam, Baltic States, Bangladesh, Belarus, Botswana, Brazil North, Brazil Northeast, Brazil South, Brazil Southeast, Brazil West-Central, Burundi, California, Central European Rus, Chile Central, Chile North, China North-Central, Colombia, Colorado, Comoros, Connecticut, Cuba, Cyprus, Delaware, District of Columbia, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, East Aegean Is., East European Russia, Ecuador, Egypt, Eritrea, Fiji, Florida, Gambia, Georgia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, India, Indiana, Iowa, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Ivory Coast, Japan, Jawa, Kamchatka, Kansas, Kazakhstan, Kazan-retto, Kentucky, Khabarovsk, Kirgizstan, Korea, Krym, Kuril Is., Kuwait, KwaZulu-Natal, Lebanon-Syria, Leeward Is., Libya, Louisiana, Madagascar, Magadan, Maine, Mali, Marianas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico Central, Mexico Northeast, Mexico Southwest, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Mongolia, Montana, Morocco, Myanmar, Namibia, Nansei-shoto, Nebraska, Nepal, Nevada, New Caledonia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, New Zealand North, Niger, North Carolina, North Dakota, North European Russi, Northern Provinces, Northwest European R, Ogasawara-shoto, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oman, Oregon, Pakistan, Palestine, Paraguay, Pennsylvania, Primorye, Puerto Rico, Rhode I., Rodrigues, Réunion, Sakhalin, Sardegna, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Carolina, South Dakota, South European Russi, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tadzhikistan, Tanzania, Tennessee, Texas, Transcaucasus, Turkey, Turkey-in-Europe, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Utah, Uzbekistan, Vermont, Vietnam, Virginia, Washington, West Himalaya, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Yemen

Pearl millet

Cenchrus americanus (L.) Morrone appears in other Kew resources:

Date Reference Identified As Barcode Type Status
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8639] Setaria glauca K001131065
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8639] Setaria glauca K001131066
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8639] Setaria glauca K001131076
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8639] Setaria glauca K001131073
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8639], Bangladesh Setaria glauca K001131071
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8639] Setaria glauca K001131077
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8639] Setaria glauca K001131070
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8639], India Setaria glauca K001131072
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8639] Setaria glauca K001131067
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8639] Setaria glauca K001131069
Wallich, N. [Cat. no. 8639], Nepal Setaria glauca K001131075
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8639] Setaria glauca K001131068
Wallich, N. [Cat. no. 8639], Nepal Setaria glauca K001131074
Schimper [1811], Ethiopia Pennisetum glaucum K000281150
Quartin-Dillon [186], Ethiopia Pennisetum glaucum K000281149
Xiao Bai-Zhong [4280], China Pennisetum glaucum K000731196
[Porager, H.P.] [s.n.] Pennisetum glaucum K001056162
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8644] Penicillaria spicata K001131105
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8644] Penicillaria spicata K001131106
s.coll. [Cat. no. 8644] Penicillaria spicata K001131103
Wallich, N. [Cat. no. 8644], India Penicillaria spicata K001131104

First published in Ann. Bot. (Oxford) 106: 127 (2010)

Accepted by

  • Engelmaier, P. & Wilhalm, T. (2018). Alien grasses (Poaceae) in the flora of the Eastern Alps Neilreichia 9: 177-245.


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