Hei Zhi Ma

Botanical name: Sesamum indicum
Common name: Black sesame seed

Family: Pedaliaceae, pedalium family
Part used in Chinese medicine:  seed

Major Chinese medicine actions:
Nourishes Liver and Kidney yin, nourishes blood,
extinguishes wind, moistens Intestines

Hei Zhi Ma

Hei Zhi Ma

Photo Credits: (top to bottom)
Photo 1: Sesamum indicum; 01/2006; author Franz Xaver; permission under GFDL
Photo 2: Sesamum indicum; 07/2005; author Aha; permission under GFDL

Sesame seeds are cultivated throughout China, used extensively for food, oil and medicine. Traditionally, the white seeds (Bai Zhi Ma0 are used for food, while the black sesame (Hei Zhi Ma) are used for medicine, though in practice, the black seeds are rarely used in Chinese herb decoctions and are more commonly recommended as a food herb.

The plant is not known in a truly wild situation, but it is said to have been cultivated as early as 3,000 B.C. It is not clear where the seed originated, but it is speculated that it was native to tropical Africa. It has since traveled all over the world and is now extensively grown in many tropical and warm temperate regions, China being the largest producer of the crop. Sesame is grown mainly for its oil, but the seed is high in protein, contains antioxidants, and is quite high in calcium, magnesium, copper and iron.

Growing and Harvesting

Sesamum indicum, sometimes called Sesamum orientale, is usually grown as an annual as it is frost tender and hardy only to USDA zone 10. The plant grows from 1-8 feet tall, with few but beautiful flowers on each stalk. After blooming in July, each flower is replaced by a seed capsule that ultimately produces 50-100 seeds. Depending on the variety, sesame plants can produce seeds that are white, yellow, red, brown or black. The plant is easy to grow if planted in well drained soil and a warm, sunny, sheltered location.

In order to propagate, the seed should be sown early in spring. In cool climates, this must be done in a greenhouse until the seedlings are established enough to be planted outside after all frost is over. In warm and tropical climates, it can be sown directly in the ground. The plants need regular watering and good drainage and they are fairly drought tolerant. Care should be taken not to over-water

Harvesting and Preparation

For medicinal use, good quality black sesame seeds should have a strong fragrance. The seeds should be dark, full, and with other plant matter cleaned out.

As a food herb, black sesame seeds are usually toasted in a dry fry pan while stirring frequently until a crackling sound is heard from the seeds popping. This renders the seed more easily digestible and also brings out its strong fragrance. They are then ground to a coarse powder and used as a medicinal food, added to a variety of dishes including rice and congees.