Lens culinaris (PROTA)
|Geographic coverage Africa|
|Geographic coverage World|
|Cereal / pulse|
|Forage / feed|
Lens culinaris Medik.
- Protologue: Vorles. Churpfälz. Phys.-Ökon. Ges. 2: 361 (1787).
- Family: Papilionaceae (Leguminosae - Papilionoideae, Fabaceae)
- Chromosome number: 2n = 14
- Lens esculenta Moench (1794),
- Vicia lens (L.) Coss. & Germ. (1845).
- Lentil, common lentil (En).
- Lentille, lentillon (Fr).
- Lentilha (Po).
- Mdengu (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Lentil is one of the oldest pulse crops and of ancient cultivation in western Asia, Egypt and southern Europe. It probably originated in western Asia, from where it spread into the Mediterranean region, Asia, Africa and Europe. Lentil was a common part of the diet of the ancient Greeks, Jews and Romans and was the mainstay of the poor, especially in Egypt. It was associated with many legends, tales and customs, and it is the first pulse crop mentioned in the Bible. The oldest archaeological remains of lentil are from Greece, dated 11,000 BC, and Syria, dated 8500–7500 BC. However, it is uncertain whether they were from cultivated plants or from wild ones. It is from the 5th millennium BC that unequivocally domesticated lentil seeds have been found. Lentil has been introduced into the Americas, New Zealand and Australia. It is now widely cultivated in temperate and subtropical regions, and in the tropics at higher elevations and in cool seasons. In tropical Africa it is grown in Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia (mainly in the northern, central and eastern Highlands), Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Réunion and Mauritius. It is also cultivated in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and South Africa.
Lentil is primarily grown for its mature seeds, which are consumed mainly in sauces and soups. In Ethiopia they are used in ‘kik wot’ (sauce of split seeds), soup (from whole seeds or flour), ‘nufro’ (boiled and salted), ‘azifa’ (cooked and mashed) and ‘elbet’ (paste from flour). Many other dishes are prepared from lentil in different countries. Some of these are: spicy lentil salad, lentil burgers with coriander-yoghurt sauce, lentil and mushroom cottage pie and lentil potatoes. In India split seeds (dhal) are used in soups and the whole seed is eaten salted and fried. The seeds are ground into flour used for cakes and bread and for the preparation of special foods, e.g. for infants and invalids. Young pods, sprouted seeds and leaves are eaten as vegetable.
Lentil seeds are occasionally fed to animals as a source of protein, particularly to poultry. They are sometimes used as a source of starch for the textile and printing industries. The husks, bran and fresh or dried leafy stems provide fodder for livestock. Lentil is sometimes grown for forage or as green manure, though the dry matter production is low. Lentil straw is used as fuel. The seeds are believed to remedy constipation and other intestinal problems. In India they are applied as a poultice to slow-healing sores. In Ethiopia the seeds are credited with aphrodisiac properties.
Production and international trade
According to FAO statistics, the annual world lentil production in 1999–2003 amounted to 3.1 million t/year from 3.8 million ha. The main producers were India (948,000 t/year from 1.43 million ha), Canada (616,000 t/year from 554,000 ha) and Turkey (473,000 t/year from 490,000 ha). In tropical Africa the main producer is Ethiopia (47,000 t/year from 78,000 ha). About 60% of the lentil production in Africa (including North Africa) comes from Ethiopia, where the area under lentil has decreased since the mid-1980s, but in the late 1990s this trend reversed due to the release of cultivars with resistance to rust and fusarium wilt. In Malawi lentil is grown in the northern part (near Mzimba) to supply the Indian community. World lentil exports in 1998–2002 amounted to about 1 million t/year. The main exporters were Canada (430,000 t/year), Turkey (127,000 t/year), Australia (124,000 t/year) and India (120,000 t/year). The main importers were Egypt (90,000 t/year), Sri Lanka (86,000 t/year) and Turkey (81,000 t/year).
The composition of mature raw lentil seeds per 100 g edible portion is: water 11.2 g, energy 1413 kJ (338 kcal), protein 28.1 g, fat 1.0 g, carbohydrate 57.1 g, dietary fibre 30.5 g, Ca 51 mg, Mg 107 mg, P 454 mg, Fe 9.0 mg, Zn 3.6 mg, vitamin A 39 IU, thiamin 0.48 mg, riboflavin 0.25 mg, niacin 2.6 mg, vitamin B6 0.54 mg, folate 433 μg and ascorbic acid 6.2 mg. The essential amino-acid composition per 100 g edible portion is: tryptophan 251 mg, lysine 1957 mg, methionine 238 mg, phenylalanine 1383 mg, threonine 1006 mg, valine 1392 mg, leucine 2034 mg and isoleucine 1212 mg (USDA, 2004). The main limiting amino acids are methionine and cystine. Antinutritional factors include trypsin inhibitors, haemagglutinins, tannins, phytate and oligosaccharides, but the levels are considerably lower than those in e.g. pea and faba bean, and lentils are considered more easily digested. Lentil hay contains moisture 10.2%, protein 4.4%, fat 1.8%, carbohydrate 50.0%, fibre 21.4% and ash 12.2%.
- Erect, pale green annual herb up to 60(–75) cm tall; stem square, much-branched; taproot slender.
- Leaves alternate, pinnately compound, with 5–16 leaflets; rachis (1–)2.5–3.5(–5) cm long, usually ending in a tendril or bristle; stipules entire, 2.5–6 mm long; leaflets opposite or alternate, sessile, oblong or elliptical, (3–)10–15(–20) mm × (1.5–)2–5(–8) mm, entire.
- Inflorescence an axillary raceme, 1–4(–7)-flowered; peduncle slender, (2–)3–4(–5.5) cm long.
- Flowers bisexual, papilionaceous; pedicel short; calyx campanulate, narrowly 5-lobed, tube c. 1.5 mm long, lobes c. 3 mm long; corolla pale blue, white or pink, standard 5–7 mm × 4–5 mm, wings c. 4.5 mm × 1.5 mm, keel c. 4.5 mm × 2 mm; stamens 10, 9 united and 1 free, anthers uniform; ovary superior, 1-celled, style inflexed, inner surface bearded.
- Fruit a rhomboid, laterally compressed pod, 6–20 mm × 3.5–12 mm, short-beaked, 1–2(–3)-seeded.
- Seeds lens-shaped, 2–9 mm × 2–3 mm, grey, green, brownish green, pale red speckled with black, or black; hilum minute.
- Seedling with hypogeal germination.
Other botanical information
In a recent revision of Lens 4 species are recognized on the basis of morphological characters, crossability relationships and cytogenetic, biochemical and molecular evidence; these are Lens culinaris (containing wild and cultivated types) and 3 wild species: Lens ervoides (Brign.) Grande, Lens nigricans (M.Bieb.) Godr. and Lens lamottei Czefr. Lens ervoides is found in East Africa (Ethiopia and Uganda).
Lens culinaris has been divided into 4 subspecies (1 cultivated and 3 wild):
- subsp. culinaris: stipules entire, lanceolate, pod indehiscent, glabrous, seed coat spotted; the cultivated lentil;
- subsp. odemensis (Ladiz.) M.E.Ferguson et al. (synonym: Lens odemensis Ladiz.): stipules slightly hastate, at least the lower ones slightly toothed, pod dehiscent, glabrous, seed coat with W-shaped pattern; native to Libya, Israel, Turkey and Greece;
- subsp. orientalis (Boiss.) Ponert (synonym: Lens orientalis (Boiss.) Hand.-Mazz.): stipules entire, obliquely lanceolate, pod dehiscent, glabrous, seed coat usually spotted; the wild progenitor of the cultivated lentil, distributed from Greece to Uzbekistan and from the Crimean Peninsula to Jordan;
- subsp. tomentosus (Ladiz.) M.E.Ferguson et al. (synonym: Lens tomentosus Ladiz.): stipules entire, obliquely lanceolate, pod dehiscent, tomentose, seed coat spotted; native to Syria and Turkey.
Lentil cultivars have been divided into 2 cultivar groups, based mainly on seed size:
- Microsperma Group: flowers small (5–7 mm long), violet-blue to white or pink, pods small, convex, seeds small (diameter less than 6 mm, 1000-seed weight less than 45 g), convex, cotyledons red, orange or yellow;
- Macrosperma Group: flowers large (7–8 mm long), white, rarely blue, pods large, generally flat, seeds large (diameter more than 6 mm, 1000-seed weight more than 45 g), flattened, cotyledons generally yellow, sometimes orange.
Macrosperma Group predominates in North Africa, Europe and America, Microsperma Group in Asia, Egypt and Ethiopia. In western Asia and south-eastern Europe both cultivar groups are grown.
Growth and development
At optimum temperatures lentil seeds germinate in 5–6 days. Flowering starts 6–7 weeks after sowing. Lentil is usually self-fertilized, but up to 1% cross-pollination by insects may occur. The growth cycle ranges from 80–110 days for early-maturing cultivars to 125–130 days for late-maturing ones. Lentil is effectively nodulated by Rhizobium leguminosarum.
Lentil is grown as a summer annual in temperate regions and as a winter annual in subtropical regions. In the tropics it is cultivated at higher elevations (1800–2500(– 2700) m in Ethiopia) or as a cool season crop. It grows at mean temperatures of 6–27°C, but lentil is not suited to the hot and humid tropics. Intense or prolonged frost and temperatures much higher than 27ºC seriously affect growth. Lentil requires an annual rainfall of about 750 mm, with dry conditions around harvest time, but an annual rainfall of 300–2400 mm is tolerated. It is moderately tolerant to drought, but differences exist between cultivars. Lentil normally requires long daylengths for flowering, but the response varies among genotypes, and some cultivars are daylength insensitive. In Ethiopia lentil is grown in the short rainy season (‘belg’, February–May) and during the main rainy season (‘kiremt’, June–December), the latter being predominant. To avoid waterlogging the ‘kiremt’ crop is sown on Vertisols at the end of the rainy season (September) and grown on residual soil moisture. In India lentil is grown during winter on residual soil moisture. Lentil can be grown on a wide range of soil types, from sandy to fairly heavy clay soils, but does not tolerate flooded or waterlogged soils. A pH near 7.0 is best for lentil production, but it tolerates a pH of 4.5–9.0. Lentil is generally very sensitive to salinity.
Propagation and planting
Lentil is propagated by seed. The 1000-seed weight ranges from 10–90 g. Seeds remain viable for more than 5 years under cool and dry storage conditions. A dormancy period of 4–6 weeks is common, and some cultivars have been found to be responsive to vernalization. The minimum temperature for germination is 15ºC and the optimum temperature 18–21ºC; temperatures above 27ºC are harmful. A firm, smooth seedbed is best for lentil. The seed is broadcast, or planted in rows 20–90 cm apart with 5–25 cm between plants within the row. Seed rates range from only 10 kg/ha in intercropping systems to 150 kg/ha for sole-cropped large-seeded cultivars. The sowing depth is 1–6 cm depending on seed size and moisture availability. Lentil is mainly grown as a sole crop, but sometimes mixed with other crops, e.g. in India with barley, mustard or castor.
Lentil is a poor competitor with weeds, especially when young. It should be sown in a clean field and weeding should generally be done within 3 weeks after sowing. Lentil normally responds well to P fertilizer. Effectively nodulated lentil seldom responds to application of N fertilizer. A lentil crop yielding about 2 t seed per ha takes up about 100 kg N, 12 kg P and 65 kg K per ha. In Sudan lentil is grown under irrigation, but elsewhere in tropical Africa it is a rainfed crop. In Ethiopia it is often grown in rotation with the major small-grain cereals. In crop rotations planting lentil after other legumes, Brassica crops, sunflower or potato should be avoided because these are susceptible to the same diseases.
Diseases and pests
The economically most important diseases of lentil are rust (Uromyces viciae-fabae), Ascochyta blight (Ascochyta fabae f.sp. lentis), grey mould (Botrytis cinerea), Stemphylium blight (Stemphylium botryosum), collar rot (Sclerotium rolfsii) and fusarium wilt (Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. lentis). Other fungal diseases include Rhizoctonia root rot (Rhizoctonia solani), powdery mildew (Erysiphe polygoni, Leveillula taurica), anthracnose (Colletotrichum spp.), leaf spot (Alternaria alternata) and Sclerotinia stem and root rot (Sclerotinia sclerotiorum). Rust, fusarium wilt and root rot are the most important diseases in Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Yield losses of 10% due to rust and 50% due to fusarium wilt and root rot have been recorded on Vertisol-grown lentil in Ethiopia. Symptoms of rust are leaves and stems losing their green colour and turning purple, in case of serious infection leading to death of the plant. The spread of rust is favoured by high humidity and moderate temperatures (17–25ºC). Control measures include destruction of diseased plants, treatment of seed with fungicide, and the use of resistant cultivars. Fusarium wilt causes leaf curling, followed by wilting of individual branches or the whole plant. It is favoured by light, dry soils. Suggested control measures are crop rotation, treatment of seed with fungicide, and the use of resistant cultivars. Integrated disease management packages have been developed to control wilt and root rot in Ethiopia and Sudan. Seed treatment compounds should be selected and used with care as they can interfere with the nodulation process. Several virus diseases affect lentil, the most important being cucumber mosaic virus (CMV), faba bean necrotic yellows virus (FBNYV), alfalfa mosaic virus (AMV) and tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV). Pea seed-borne mosaic virus (PSbMV) is common in Ethiopia.
Among the common insect pests of lentil, aphids are important. The pea aphid (Acrythosiphon pisum) is the most important aphid in Ethiopia, causing up to 25% yield loss. Stored seeds are attractive to bruchids (Callosobruchus spp.). Broomrape (Orobanche spp.) is an important parasitic weed on lentil in the Mediterranean region and western Asia; it is difficult to control by management practices or genetic means.
Lentil is harvested when the pods turn yellow-brown and the lower ones are still firm. Further delay may lead to shattering. In many areas the plant is cut down manually to ground level and left to dry for about 10 days, before being threshed and winnowed. Alternatively, for instance in Ethiopia, lentils are harvested by hand-pulling the plants, after which they are left in the field to dry to a seed moisture content of 12–13%. In the United States lentil is harvested mechanically, preferably at a moisture level of 18–20% to prevent excessive shattering and seed damage.
The average lentil seed yield in Ethiopia is about 600 kg/ha, which is below the average world yield of about 800 kg/ha. In the Ethiopian highlands, where the growing period is long, yields of about 4 t/ha have been obtained in experiments, and more than 2 t/ha in farmer’s fields when the recommended agronomic package was applied. In Asia average seed yields are 300–600 kg/ha in mixed crops and 900–1100 kg/ha for sole crops. Leafy stem yields of up to 7 t/ha are possible for late-type lentils in Ethiopia.
Handling after harvest
Harvested lentil should be dried to a moisture content of 11–14%; at a lower moisture content seeds tend to break. In Ethiopia the dried plants are spread on a cemented area, where they are threshed by animals, after which the seeds are separated from the residues by winnowing. The clean seeds are stored as whole seeds or in dehulled form. Because of storage insects, mainly Callosobruchus spp., lentil seeds are not stored for more than half a year, except where pit (underground) storage is used. Mechanically harvested lentil seeds can be dried in heated air dryers, but the temperature should not exceed 43ºC to reduce cracking of the seed coat.
The largest lentil germplasm collection is that of ICARDA (International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, Aleppo, Syria), with about 10,000 accessions, including wild Lens. Large collections are also kept at the Australian Temperate Field Crops Collection (Horsham, Victoria, Australia, about 4800 accessions), the USDA-ARS Western Regional Plant Introduction Station (Pullman, Washington, United States, about 2800 accessions), and the N.I. Vavilov All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Plant Industry (St. Petersburg, Russia, about 2400 accessions). The largest lentil germplasm collection in tropical Africa (about 370 accessions) is held by the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation (IBC), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a country which is considered as a secondary centre of diversity for lentil. Some accessions of Lens ervoides have been collected by IBC. Cultivated lentil shows a wide range of morphological variation, in vegetative as well as in generative parts. Analyses using biochemical and molecular markers such as RFLPs and RAPDs generally show little genetic variation, but more variation is revealed when ISSR markers are used.
Like in many other self-pollinating crops, the genetic variation in lentil has been structured into true-breeding landraces endemic to restricted areas. Since the 1920s breeding work has focused on the collection and evaluation of landraces, on the basis of yield, seed size and disease resistance. Selection is now complemented by crossing programmes, the main breeding objective being yield, but also with attention to broad adaptation, tolerance to environmental stresses, resistance to diseases and pests, and nutritional quality. Considerable progress has been achieved in breeding for resistance to rust, wilt, Ascochyta blight and Stemphylium blight.
ICARDA has the global mandate for research on lentil improvement. National lentil improvement programmes in lentil-producing countries use their own germplasm collections and introductions from other institutes for their breeding programmes. The national programmes of lentil-producing countries have released many cultivars. Ethiopia, for instance, has released 10 cultivars (‘EL-142’, ‘R-186’, ‘Chalew’, ‘Chekol’, ‘Adaa’, ‘Gudo’, ‘Alemaya’, ‘Assano’, ‘Alem Tena’ and ‘Teshale’) and others are being developed for different agro-ecological zones. Cultivars derived from hybridization schemes are also being developed. Sudan has released some cultivars for its irrigated agriculture.
Wild relatives are considered potentially valuable to improve the tolerance to environmental stresses. Different institutions are studying crossability of these wild relatives among themselves and with cultivated lentil. Crosses between Lens culinaris and Lens ervoides or Lens nigricans usually abort, but F1 hybrids can be rescued and produce viable and largely fertile F2 segregates.
Successful tissue culture of lentil has been achieved with shoot apical meristem tips, nodal segments and intact seedlings. Genetic transformation of lentil plants has been achieved by electroporation, particle bombardment and Agrobacterium-mediated methods. Fertile transgenic plants have been obtained using particle bombardment. Genetic linkage maps for lentil have been developed.
Lentil seeds are tasty, relatively easily cooked and have excellent nutritional qualities because of the high protein content and good digestibility. The susceptibility of lentil to diseases, especially rust and wilt, has limited its development, but considerable progress has been achieved in breeding for resistance to major diseases. In North and East Africa the demand for lentil remains high while the area and production remained constant or declined until the late 1990s, but recovered thereafter. Currently, there is also an increasing export demand, which can be met with research and development efforts towards increasing yield, setting up seed supply schemes and improving quality through processing industries. The crop can be grown in various agro-ecological zones and is useful in rotations with cereals. Therefore, its role in crop production systems remains important, especially in Ethiopia.
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Sources of illustration
- Jansen, P.C.M., 1989. Lens culinaris Medikus. In: van der Maesen, L.J.G. & Somaatmadja, S. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 1. Pulses. Pudoc, Wageningen, Netherlands. pp. 51–53.
- G. Bejiga, Green Focus Ethiopia, P.O. Box 802, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Correct citation of this article
Bejiga, G., 2006. Lens culinaris Medik. In: Brink, M. & Belay, G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 10 April 2019.
- See the Prota4U database.