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Sesame are plants in the genus Sesamum, family Pedaliaceae, which are grown for their edible seeds and oil. Sesame is native to Africa and Asia, and was brought to North America from Africa during the slave trade. There are about 15 species of sesame, but only two, S. indicum and S. orientale, are cultivated for commercial purposes. Evidence has shown that sesame has been used for thousands of years as the plant was mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus (from about 3,800 years ago).

The sesame plant is an annual and grows best on sandy loam. The stems are round and shiny, and reach an average of 3-4 ft (90-120 cm) tall. Leaves growing near the bottom of the stem are fleshy, lance-shaped, and are arranged opposite from one another. Leaves toward the top are alternate, oblong, and more slender than the bottom leaves. The flowers are purple or white, about 1 in (2.5-3 cm) long, and trumpet shaped. The flowers are followed by seed pods filled with small, flat, yellowish white seeds (S. indicum), or brownish-black seeds (S. orientale). The seeds are harvested, usually after four months. The stems are cut and allowed to dry, and then the seed pods split open, and the seeds can be shaken out.

The seeds are crushed and pressed to extract the oil. Sesame oil is used for cooking, especially in China, India, and Egypt. Some margarines contain sesame oil. The oil has been used as a laxative, in the manufacture of fine soaps, and is a popular massage oil. The seed oil from S. orientale is suitable for industrial purposes. The seeds are used for baking, often sprinkled on bread. Tahini is a paste made from the seeds, and is an important ingredient in many Middle Eastern dishes.

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