Setaria italica (PROSEA)

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Plant Resources of South-East Asia
List of species

Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauvois cv. group Foxtail Millet

Protologue: Ess. Agrostogr.: 51 (1812); cv. group Foxtail Millet: name is proposed here.
Family: Gramineae
Chromosome number: 2n= 18


  • Panicum italicum L. (1753),
  • P. viride L. [var.] italica L. (1759),
  • Setaria viridis (L.) P. Beauvois subsp. italica (L.) Briquet (1910).

Vernacular names

  • Foxtail millet, Italian millet, German millet (En)
  • Petit mil, millet des oiseaux, miliade (Fr)
  • Indonesia: juwawut (Javanese), jawawut (Sundanese)
  • Malaysia: sekoi, sekui, rumput ekor kuching
  • Philippines: dawa (Tagalog), bukakaw (Iloko), turai (Sulu)
  • Cambodia: kuö thpu:
  • Laos: khauz fa:ngz
  • Thailand: khao-fang (central), fanghangma (southern)
  • Vietnam: kê.

Origin and geographic distribution

Foxtail millet has been known as a cultivated cereal since ancient times (since 5000 BC in China and 3000 BC in Europe). It probably evolved from its wild weedy form (green foxtail millet) and its domestication could have taken place anywhere across its natural range extending from Europe to Japan, perhaps even independently several times, e.g. in Europe and in China; most probably, however, it was first domesticated in the highlands of central China and spread to India and Europe soon thereafter. At present, foxtail millet is cultivated all over the world, being most important in China, India and south-eastern Europe. In South-East Asia it is only occasionally grown, on a small scale.


The grain of foxtail millet is used for human food in Asia, south-eastern Europe and northern Africa. It may be cooked and eaten like rice, either entire or broken. It can also be ground and the flour made into unleavened bread or, when mixed with wheat flour, made into leavened bread. The flour is also used to make porridge and puddings. In northern China it is part of the staple diet and usually mixed with pulses and cooked, or the flour is mixed with flour of other cereals in the preparation of dough for bread and noodles. In India, foxtail millet grain is prized as a food and considered as a "holy" dish in religious ceremonies. In China it is considered as a nutritious food, often recommended for the elderly and pregnant women. Since the 1990s foxtail millet has also been used in China for the industrial preparation of mini crisp chips, millet crisp rolls and flour for babyfood. Sprouted foxtail millet is used as a vegetable and, especially in Russia and Burma (Myanmar), for the preparation of beer and alcohol, and in China also for vinegar and wine. In Europe, foxtail millet and other Setaria species are primarily grown as feed for domesticated fowl and cage birds. The same holds true in Indonesia. Foxtail millet is an important fodder crop and in the United States it is grown for hay and silage. Wild S. italica can be a troublesome weed in cereal and pulse crops, especially in temperate regions.

Medicinally, foxtail millet is thought to have diuretic, astringent and emollient properties and is also used against rheumatism.

Production and international trade

Foxtail millet is mainly produced and traded locally. In China about 90% is consumed locally, 10% is traded locally and internationally. No reliable statistics are available; usually the data presented are combined for all millets. In China, the largest foxtail millet producer in the world, 4.5 million t was produced on 2.5 million ha in 1988. The market price for hulled grain in China is approximately US$ 0.20-0.30 per kg.

World production has declined substantially since the 1950s and the crop has been replaced by wheat and maize in Europe and Russia, and by rice in Asia. Foxtail millet only remains an important crop in parts of India, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Manchuria, Korea and Georgia.


Per 100 g edible portion foxtail millet grain contains approximately: water 10.5-11.9 g, protein 9.7-10.8 g, fat 1.7-3.5 g, carbohydrates 72.4-76.6 g, fibre 1 g, ash 1.5 g, P 311 mg, Ca 28 mg, Fe 5 mg. The energy value averages 1400-1500 kJ/100 g. The weight of 1000 grains is 2-4 g. Green foxtail millet, used as fodder, has a dry matter content of about 87%. Its digestibility varies widely; due to oxalate accumulation in its green parts, foxtail millet can be problematic as feed for animals, which may develop a pathological condition, such as big-head in horses.


  • Annual grass, 60-120(-175) cm tall, tufted, often variously tinged with purple.
  • Root system dense, with thin wiry adventitious roots from the lowest nodes.
  • Culm erect, slender, tillering from lower buds, sometimes branched.
  • Leaf-sheath cylindrical, open above, 10-15(-26) cm long, glabrous or slightly hairy; ligule short, fimbriate; blade linear-acuminate, 16-32(-50) cm × 1.5-2.5(-4) cm, midrib prominent, scaberulous.
  • Inflorescence a spike-like panicle, 8-18(-30) cm × 1-2(-5) cm, peduncle 25-30(-50) cm long, erect or pendulous; rachis ribbed and ciliate; lateral branches much reduced, ciliate, bearing 6-12 two-flowered subsessile spikelets, each subtended by 1-3 bristles; bristles 3-14 mm long, scabrid hairy.
  • Spikelet elliptical, usually about half as long as subtending bristles, lower glume small and 3-veined, upper glume large and 5-veined; lower floret sterile; upper floret hermaphrodite with 5-veined lemma and palea, 2 lodicules, 3 stamens, 2 styles with plumose stigmas.
  • Caryopsis broadly ovoid, up to 2 mm long, tightly enclosed by lemma and palea, pale yellow to orange, red, brown or black.

Growth and development

Most foxtail millet cultivars have a growth cycle of 3-4 months but some cultivars (e.g. in Hungary) only need 2 months to mature. On average, cultivars of the subgroup Indica start flowering 57 days after sowing, those of Maxima need 41 days and those of Moharia 40 days; flowering extends over a period of 10-15 days. The flowers open late at night and early in the morning. Foxtail millet is highly autogamous, but natural hybrids between wild and cultivated taxa do occur.

Other botanical information

S. italica is a "crop-weed" complex, i.e. with wild taxa (green foxtail) and cultivated culta (foxtail millet). These groups show no crossing barriers. In the literature the two groups have often been described as different species or subspecies (e.g. for the wild green foxtail: S. viridis (L.) P. Beauvois, S. italica (L.) P. Beauvois subsp. viridis (L.) Thell.; for the cultivated foxtail millet: S. italica (L.) P. Beauvois, S. italica (L.) P. Beauvois subsp. italica). Here it is proposed to classify the cultivated representatives into the cultivar group Foxtail Millet.

Foxtail millet is very variable and numerous cultivars exist, differing in time to maturity, height, size, habit and structure of inflorescence, number, colour and length of bristles, and colour of grain. Primitive cultivars have numerous, strongly branched culms (like green foxtail), while advanced cultivars produce a single culm with a large, solitary inflorescence.

Three cultivar subgroups can be distinguished within the cultivar group Foxtail Millet (comprising all cultivated culta): subgroup Indica (occurring in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal), subgroup Maxima (occurring in the Far East) and subgroup Moharia (occurring in Europe, Russia, Near East and Afghanistan). Their main differences are (average values for the 3 subgroups Indica, Maxima, and Moharia respectively): plant height: 122, 85 and 59 cm; number of tillers: 7, 3 and 12; leaf size: 32 cm × 2 cm, 26 cm × 3 cm and 18 cm × 1.5 cm; sheath length: 15, 14 and 9.5 cm; peduncle length: 31, 30 and 27 cm; inflorescence length × width: 18 cm × 2 cm, 15 cm × 2 cm and 8 cm × 1 cm; inflorescence habit: loose and erect or nodding, lobed and pendulous, and compact and erect. Group Maxima includes the most advanced cultivars, group Moharia the most primitive.

Green foxtail occurs worldwide as an extensively variable, annual weed, especially in temperate regions. It is typically a small erect or decumbent plant up to 1.5 m tall with several strongly branched culms; its panicles are spikelike and densely flowered, usually less than 10 cm long, branches up to 1.5 cm long bearing clusters of spikelets; spikelet elliptical, 2-2.5 mm long, subtended by 1-3 persisting, long bristles, disarticulating from the rachis below the glumes; the caryopsis is tightly enclosed by the indurate lemma and palea.

Foxtail millet has largely lost the ability of natural seed dispersal (persistent spikelets at maturity facilitate harvesting), and shows a tendency toward uniform plant maturity. After cultivation, some degree of natural seed dispersal frequently persists for several generations and plants compete with wild green foxtail.

A robust weed, occurring in Asia, Europe and North America, known as giant green foxtail, is a derivative of a natural hybridization between green foxtail and foxtail millet; it is erect and larger (up to 2.5 m tall; panicles up to 20 cm long; panicle branches up to 4 cm long) than green foxtail.

Several wild Setaria species are important as forage and are also extensively harvested as wild cereals, e.g. S. pumila (Poiret) Roemer & Schultes (synonym: S. pallide-fusca (Schumach.) Stapf & Hubbard) is a complex annual species, occurring in Africa, Asia and Australia, and in India some forms are cultivated as a crop; S. sphacelata (Schumach.) Stapf & Hubbard ex M.B. Moss is a polyploid complex originating from tropical Africa, but cultivated as a forage throughout the tropics; grain of S. palmifolia (Koenig) Stapf is commonly used as a substitute for rice by forest tribes in the Philippines; in New Guinea this species is vegetatively propagated for the edible young shoots which are cooked as a green vegetable.


Foxtail millet has a C4-cycle photosynthetic pathway. It can be grown in semi-arid regions with rainfall less than 125 mm in the 3-4 months of growth. It does not tolerate waterlogging and is susceptible to long periods of drought. In the tropics it can be grown from sea-level up to 2000 m altitude. It prefers a fertile soil but can be grown successfully on a wide range of soils, from light sands to heavy clays, and even yields reasonably on poor or marginal soils.

Propagation and planting

Foxtail millet is propagated by seed, either broadcast or drilled, needing a seed rate of 8-10 kg/ha when grown in pure stands. In India, it is often grown in mixtures with finger millet, cotton and sorghum.


Foxtail millet is usually grown as a rainfed crop, but it may also be grown under irrigation. Sometimes it is grown as a catchcrop when the paddy rice has failed. The crop responds well to manuring; in practice only irrigated crops are manured.

Diseases and pests

The most serious diseases are blast (Piricularia setariae), downy mildew (Sclerospora graminicola), leaf rust (Uromyces setariae-italiae) and smut (Ustilago crameri). The major pests are shoot fly (Atherigona biseta), borers, caterpillars and birds. In stored grain, seed smut (Sorosporium bullatum) and kernel smut (Ustilago paradoxa) may cause considerable losses in addition to the common cereal storage insects.


Foxtail millet is harvested manually by cutting off the spikes, or mechanically with a combine or binder. When grown for fodder, it should be harvested before flowering.


The average annual yield of rainfed foxtail millet is 800-900 kg/ha of grain and 2500 kg/ha of straw. Much higher yields can be obtained with irrigation (in China experimental yields reached 11 t/ha).

Handling after harvest

Foxtail millet is usually husked just before processing because husked grains are readily infested with insects. Husking can be done with a stone roller or with rice milling machinery. The millet bran (comprising 20-30% of the spikes) is rich in oil (about 9%) which can be extracted, or the bran is used as animal feed. In China, mini crisp chips are made by cooking husked grains, pressing the product to 1 mm thickness, drying, frying in oil and flavouring. Crispy rolls are prepared from husked grains which are soaked in water, ground and, after addition of sugar, toasted between 2 iron plates and formed into rolls.

Genetic resources

Large collections of foxtail millet germplasm are present at the National Gene Bank of China, Institute of Germplasm Resources (CAAS, Beijing, 15 000 accessions) and at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT, India, about 1400 accessions). Smaller collections are present at various other national genebanks and research centres, e.g. in Thailand at the National Corn and Sorghum Research Centre in Pakchong.


In crop-weed complexes like foxtail millet, variation is extensive and often continuous. Variation is often maintained by farmers selecting a range of phenotypes for sowing with different ripening times, because this allows for harvesting over an extended period of time and eliminates the necessity of prolonged seed storage.

Major breeding objectives are developing high-yielding cultivars which produce protein-rich seed and are resistant to diseases, pests and lodging, and adapted to local ecological circumstances. In China, for example, cultivars with a short growing cycle and a high drought and cold tolerance have been developed; these can be grown in the summer season after winter wheat.


Foxtail millet has lost its importance as a major food crop in competition with wheat, maize, sorghum and rice. However, it may remain an important crop, especially on poor agricultural land in regions with low rainfall or a short growing season. Breeding results in China are such that an expansion of foxtail millet cultivation is foreseen for the near future.


  • Chen Jiaju, 1993. Present status of foxtail millet and proso millet genetic resources conservation in China. In: Riley, K.W., Gupta, S.C., Seetharam, A. & Mushonga, J.N. (Editors): Advances in small millets. Oxford & IBH Publishing Company, New Delhi, India. pp. 401-406.
  • Chen Jiaju & Qi Yuzhi, 1993. Recent developments in foxtail millet cultivation and research in China. In: Riley, K.W., Gupta, S.C., Seetharam, A. & Mushonga, J.N. (Editors): Advances in small millets. Oxford & IBH Publishing Company, New Delhi, India. pp. 101-107.
  • de Wet, J.M.J., Oestry-Stidd, L.L. & Cubero, J.I., 1979. Origins and evolution of foxtail millets (Setaria italica). Journal d'Agriculture Traditionnelle et de Botanique Appliquée 26: 53-64.
  • Hulse, J.H., Laing, E.M. & Pearson, O.E., 1980. Sorghum and millets: their composition and nutritive value. Academic Press, London, United Kingdom. pp. 187-193, 511-513.
  • Purseglove, J.W., 1972. Tropical crops. Monocotyledons 1. Longman, London, United Kingdom. pp. 256-259.
  • Rao, K.E.P., de Wet, J.M.J., Brink, D.E. & Mengesha, M.H., 1987. Infraspecific variation and systematics of cultivated Setaria italica, foxtail millet (Poaceae). Economic Botany 41: 108-116.
  • Riley, K.W., Gupta, S.C., Seetharam, A. & Mushonga, J.N. (Editors), 1993. Advances in small millets. Proceedings of the Second International Small Millets Workshop held in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe from April 8-12, 1991. Oxford & IBH Publishing Company, New Delhi, India. 557 pp.


  • M. Rahayu & P.C.M. Jansen