Setaria italica (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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distribution in Africa (planted)
1, upper part of plant; 2, sheath mouth with ligule; 3, flowering spikelet with bristles; 4, fruiting spikelet. Source: PROSEA
plants with panicles (M. Hassler)
plants with panicles (M. Hassler)
plants with panicles

Setaria italica (L.) P.Beauv.

Protologue: Ess. Agrostogr.: 51, 170, 178 (1812).
Family: Poaceae (Gramineae)
Chromosome number: 2n = 18

Vernacular names

  • Foxtail millet, Italian millet, German millet (En).
  • Panis, millet des oiseaux, millet d’Italie (Fr).
  • Painço, milho painço, milho painço de Itália (Po).
  • Kimanga (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Foxtail millet is an old crop, grown since 5000 BC in China and 3000 BC in Europe. It probably evolved from the wild Setaria viridis (L.) P.Beauv. (green foxtail millet), and it was most probably first domesticated in the highlands of central China, from where it spread to India and Europe soon thereafter. Evidence for this origin, however, is not conclusive and its domestication may have taken place anywhere in the area extending from Europe to Japan, perhaps even several times independently. Foxtail millet was the ‘panicum’ of the Romans. At present foxtail millet is cultivated all over the world. In tropical Africa it is cultivated to a limited extent in upland areas in East Africa and occasionally recorded elsewhere, e.g. in Cameroon and southern Africa (Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique). In these areas it also occurs as an escape. Foxtail millet is also grown in South Africa and Lesotho.


The husked grain of foxtail millet is used as food in Asia, south-eastern Europe and Africa. It is most important in China and India. The grain may be cooked and eaten like rice, either entire or broken. It can be ground and made into unleavened bread or, when mixed with wheat flour, into leavened bread. The flour is also made into cakes, porridges and puddings. In northern China foxtail millet forms part of the staple diet; it is usually mixed with pulses and cooked, or the flour is mixed with that of other cereals in the preparation of bread and noodles. It is considered a nutritious food and is often recommended for the elderly and for pregnant women. Since the 1990s it has been used in China for the industrial preparation of mini crisp chips, millet crisp rolls and flour for baby foods. Foxtail millet is used in the preparation of beer and alcohol, especially in Russia and Myanmar, and for vinegar and wine in China. Sprouted seeds are eaten as a vegetable, e.g. in China.

In Europe and the United States foxtail millet is primarily grown as bird feed. It is an important fodder crop (‘moha’); in the United States and Europe it is grown for hay and silage, and in China the straw is an important fodder. The straw is also used for thatching and bedding, e.g. in India. The bran serves as animal feed and can be used for oil extraction. Foxtail millet is credited with diuretic, astringent and emollient properties and is used to treat rheumatism. It can be sown in contour strips for erosion control.

Production and international trade

Production statistics for foxtail millet are scarce because they are usually lumped with those of other millets. The annual world production of foxtail millet in the early 1990s was estimated at 5 million t (18% of total millet production), with China being the main producer. In tropical Africa the production of foxtail millet is much lower than that of pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum (L.) R.Br.) and finger millet (Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn.), but no statistics are available. In India and China foxtail millet is mainly grown for home consumption.


The composition of foxtail millet grain per 100 g edible portion is: water 12 g, energy 1470 kJ (351 kcal), protein 11.2 g, fat 4.0 g, carbohydrate 63.2 g, crude fibre 6.7 g, Ca 31 mg, Fe 2.8 mg, thiamin 0.6 mg, riboflavin 0.1 mg and niacin 3.2 mg (FAO, 1995). The essential amino-acid composition per 100 g grain is: tryptophan 103 mg, lysine 233 mg, methionine 296 mg, phenylalanine 708 mg, threonine 328 mg, valine 728 mg, leucine 1764 mg and isoleucine 803 mg (FAO, 1970). The starch granules are spherical, angular or polyhedral with a diameter of 6–17 μm. Most foxtail cultivars are non-glutinous and are thus suitable for the diet of people with coeliac disease. The bran contains about 9% oil.


  • Erect annual grass up to 150(–175) cm tall, tufted, often variously tinged with purple; root system dense, with thin wiry adventitious roots; stem erect, tillering at base, sometimes branched.
  • Leaves alternate, simple; leaf sheath 10–15(–25) cm long, glabrous or slightly hairy; ligule short, fimbriate; blade linear, 15–30(–50) cm × 0.5–2.5(–4) cm, acuminate at apex, midrib prominent, slightly rough.
  • Inflorescence a spike-like panicle 5–30 cm × 1–2(–5) cm, erect or pendulous, continuous or interrupted at base; rachis ribbed and hairy; lateral branches short, bearing 6–12 spikelets.
  • Spikelets almost sessile, subtended by 1–3 bristles up to 1.5 cm long, elliptical, usually about half as long as the bristles, 2-flowered; lower glume small and 3-veined, upper glume slightly shorter than spikelet, 5-veined; lower floret sterile, upper one bisexual with 5-veined lemma and palea, 2 lodicules, 3 stamens and superior ovary with 2 plumose stigmas.
  • Fruit a caryopsis (grain), broadly ovoid, up to 2 mm long, pale yellow to orange, red, brown or black, tightly enclosed by lemma and palea.

Other botanical information

Setaria comprises about 100 species distributed in the tropics, subtropics and temperate regions. Foxtail millet is the most economically valuable species of the genus. Several wild Setaria species are harvested for their seeds, e.g. Setaria finita Launert in Namibia. Setaria sphacelata (Schumach.) Stapf & C.E.Hubb. ex M.B.Moss is cultivated as a forage throughout the tropics and its grains are gathered as a famine food in Africa. The grains of Setaria pumila (Poir.) Roem. & Schult. are also eaten as a famine food, e.g. in Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Ethiopia, but it is more important as a forage. Setaria verticillata (L.) P.Beauv. is a forage plant, but also collected as a famine food, e.g. in Niger, Sudan and Namibia.

Setaria italica is a ‘crop-weed complex’, i.e. with wild and cultivated types. These types show no crossing barriers and isozyme analysis and molecular studies have confirmed their similarity. The wild types are considered to represent Setaria viridis (green foxtail millet), the cultivated ones Setaria italica (foxtail millet).

Green foxtail millet occurs worldwide as a variable, annual weed, especially common in temperate regions. It differs from foxtail millet in its completely caducous spikelets, upper glume about as long as the spikelet and more roughly papillose lemma. It is sometimes considered a subspecies of Setaria italica: subsp. viridis (L.) Thell. It is also known as green bristle grass, and is one of the world’s most noxious weeds, but it is sometimes used as fodder or for medicinal purposes.

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

Growth and development

Foxtail millet generally starts flowering at about 60 days after sowing, and flowering lasts for 10–15 days. Flowering proceeds from the top of the panicle downward. The flowers open late at night or early in the morning, and close soon after opening. Foxtail millet is largely self-pollinating with an average outcrossing rate of 4%; natural hybrids between wild and cultivated types occur. Total crop duration is 80–120 days, although some cultivars only need 60 days to mature. Foxtail millet has largely lost the ability of natural seed dispersal, and shows a tendency toward uniform plant maturity. Foxtail millet follows the C4-cycle photosynthetic pathway.


Foxtail millet is primarily a crop of subtropical and temperate regions; in the tropics it is grown up to 2000(–3300) m altitude. It does not tolerate frost. In China and India it is mainly grown in areas with an annual rainfall of 400–800 mm. Foxtail millet is not particularly drought-resistant, but its short crop cycle makes it suitable for low-rainfall areas and it can be grown in semi-arid regions with rainfall less than 125 mm in the 3–4 months of growth. It is, however, susceptible to long periods of drought. Flowering is normally accelerated by short days, but day-neutral cultivars exist. Foxtail millet prefers fertile soils with a pH of about 6.5, but can be grown successfully on a wide range of soils, from light sands to heavy clays, and even yields reasonably well on poor or marginal soils. It does not tolerate waterlogging.

Propagation and planting

Foxtail millet is propagated by seed. The 1000-seed weight is about 2 g. Dormancy is common in freshly harvested seed. The recommended seed rate for sole cropping in Kenya is 4 kg/ha, with a distance of 30 cm between rows and 10 cm within the row. In China and India it is sown at a seed rate of 5–15 kg/ha when grown in pure stands, with plant densities of 300, 000–1.5 million plants/ha. It is either broadcast or drilled in rows 20–60 cm apart, with 5–20 cm within the row, and thinning may be practised. The usual sowing depth is 3–6 cm and a fine, firm seed-bed is required. Foxtail millet is grown as a sole crop or intercropped, e.g. with finger millet, cotton, sorghum or pigeon pea in India.


In Kenya the first weeding of foxtail millet is recommended at 2–3 weeks after emergence of the seedlings, and the second one 2 weeks later. In India foxtail millet is usually weeded once at about 3 weeks after sowing. Foxtail millet responds well to manuring, but generally only irrigated crops are manured. It is usually grown as a rainfed crop, but it may also be grown under irrigation, e.g. in India. Crop rotation of foxtail millet with finger millet and sorghum is common in India. Sometimes it is grown as a catch crop when paddy rice has failed.

Diseases and pests

The most serious diseases of foxtail millet are blast (Pyricularia setariae), downy mildew (Sclerospora graminicola), leaf rust (Uromyces setariae-italiae) and smut (Ustilago crameri). Downy mildew and smut can be controlled by treating the seed. Important insect pests of foxtail millet are shoot flies (Atherigona spp.), crickets, borers and caterpillars. Foxtail millet is highly susceptible to bird attack in the field, and mice and rats also damage the crop. 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 panicles and threshing them. Mechanical harvesting with a combine or binder is possible. In southern India whole plants may be cut and threshed by trampling by cattle or by passing a stone roller over the plants. When grown for fodder, foxtail millet 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. Improved cultivars in China yield 1800 kg/ha of grain in regions with less than 900 mm annual rainfall. Much higher grain yields can be obtained with irrigation (in China experimental yields have reached 11 t/ha). As forage it may yield 15–20 t green matter per ha or 3.5 t hay.

Handling after harvest

Foxtail millet should be dried thoroughly before storage. The grain 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. 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 kept by the Institute of Crop Germplasm Resources (CAAS), Beijing, China (25,380 accessions), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Patancheru, India (1528 accessions) and the All India Coordinated Minor Millet Project, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, India (1300 accessions). In Africa a collection of 451 foxtail millet accessions is kept at the National Dryland Farming Research Station, Machakos, Kenya. Resistance to blast and rust has been identified in germplasm collections.


Foxtail millet breeding is mainly carried out in China and India. 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. The recommended cultivar in Kenya is ‘KAT/FOX-1’; it matures in 3–4 months. Techniques applied in foxtail millet breeding include selection, hybridization (using male-sterile lines) and radiation-induced mutations. Due to the floral morphology (very small flowers) and flowering behaviour of foxtail millet, artificial cross-pollination is difficult, but an effective procedure for artificial hybridization of foxtail millet has been developed in the United States. High levels of heterosis for grain yield (67%) and panicle length (68%) have been found.


On a worldwide scale foxtail millet has lost its importance as a food crop in competition with major cereals such as wheat, rice, maize and sorghum. However, because of its short crop cycle and the fact that it can be grown on a wide range of soil types it may remain a useful crop in Asia on poor agricultural land in regions with low rainfall or a short growing season. The prospects for foxtail millet in tropical Africa seem limited, but it may gain importance as a niche crop in dry regions at medium to high altitudes.

Major references

  • 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.
  • FAO, undated. Setaria italica (L.) Beauv. [Internet] FAO Crop and Grassland Service (AGPC), Rome, Italy. http://www.fao.o g/ag/AGP/AGPC/doc/GBASE/ DATA/Pf000314.htm. January 2005.
  • Hanelt, P. & Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (Editors), 2001. Mansfeld’s encyclopedia of agricultural and horticultural crops (except ornamentals). 1st English edition. Springer Verlag, Berlin, Germany. 3645 pp.
  • Oduori, C.O., 1993. Small millets production and research in Kenya. In: Riley, K.W., Gupta, S.C., Seetharam, A. & Mushonga, J.N. (Editors). Advances in small millets. Oxford & IBH Publishing, New Delhi, India. pp. 67–73.
  • Prasada Rao, K.E. & de Wet, J.M.J., 1997. Small millets. In: Fuccillo, D., Sears, L. & Stapleton, P. (Editors). Biodiversity in trust: conservation and use of plant genetic resources in CGIAR Centres. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom. pp. 259–272.
  • Prasada Rao, K.E., 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(1): 108–116.
  • Purseglove, J.W., 1972. Tropical crops. Monocotyledons. Volume 1. Longman, London, United Kingdom. 334 pp.
  • Rahayu, M. & Jansen, P.C.M., 1996. Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauvois cv. group Foxtail Millet. In: Grubben, G.J.H. & Partohardjono, S. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 10. Cereals. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 127–130.
  • Riley, K.W., Gupta, S.C., Seetharam, A. & Mushonga, J.N. (Editors), 1993. Advances in small millets. Oxford & IBH Publishing, New Delhi, India. 557 pp.
  • Seetharam, A., Riley, K.W. & Harinarayana, G., 1990. Small millets in global agriculture. Proceedings of the first international small millets workshop, Bangalore, India, October 29 – November 2, 1986. Aspect Publishing, London, United Kingdom. 392 pp.

Other references

  • Benabdelmouna, A., Shi, Y., Abirached-Darmency, M. & Darmency, H., 2001. Genomic in situ hybridization (GISH) discriminates between the A and B genomes in diploid and tetraploid Setaria species. Genome 44(4): 685–690.
  • Benabdelmouna, A., Abirached-Darmency, M. & Darmency, H., 2001. Phylogenetic and genomic relationships in Setaria italica and its close relatives based on the molecular diversity and chromosomal organization of 5S and 18S-5.8S-25S rDNA genes. Theoretical and Applied Genetics 103(5): 668–677.
  • Burkill, H.M., 1994. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 2, Families E–I. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 636 pp.
  • Clayton, W.D., 1989. Gramineae (Paniceae, Isachneae and Arundinelleae). In: Launert, E. & Pope, G.V. (Editors). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 10, part 3. Flora Zambesiaca Managing Committee, London, United Kingdom. 231 pp.
  • CSIR, 1972. The wealth of India. A dictionary of Indian raw materials & industrial products. Raw materials. Volume 9: Rh–So. Publications and Information Directorate, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi, India. 472 pp.
  • de Wet, J.M.J., 1995. Foxtail millet. In: Smartt, J. & Simmonds, N.W. (Editors). Evolution of crop plants. 2nd Edition. Longman, London, United Kingdom. pp. 170–172.
  • FAO, 1970. Amino-acid content of foods and biological data on proteins. FAO Nutrition Studies No 24, Rome, Italy. 285 pp.
  • FAO, 1995. Sorghum and millets in human nutrition. FAO food and nutrition series No 27. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy. 184 pp.
  • Gibbs Russell, G.E., Watson, L., Koekemoer, M., Smook, L., Barker, N.P., Anderson, H.M. & Dallwitz, M.J., 1990. Grasses of Southern Africa: an identification manual with keys, descriptions, distributions, classification and automated identification and information retrieval from computerized data. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No 58. National Botanic Gardens / Botanical Research Institute, Pretoria, South Africa. 437 pp.
  • Hulse, J.H., Laing, E.M. & Pearson, O.E., 1980. Sorghum and the millets: their composition and nutritive value. Academic Press, London, United Kingdom. 997 pp.
  • ICRISAT & FAO, 1996. The world sorghum and millet economies: facts, trends and outlook. ICRISAT, Patancheru, India & FAO, Rome, Italy. 68 pp.
  • Klaassen, E.S. & Craven, P., 2003. Checklist of grasses in Namibia. Southern African Botanical Diversity Network Report No 20. SABONET, Pretoria, South Africa. 130 pp.
  • le Thierry d’Ennequin, M., Panaud, O., Toupance, B. & Sarr, A., 2000. Assessment of genetic relationships between Setaria italica and its wild relative Setaria viridis using AFLP markers. Theoretical and Applied Genetics 100(7): 1061–1066.
  • Li, Y., Jia, J., Wang, Y. & Wu, S., 1998. Intraspecific and interspecific variation in Setaria revealed by RAPD analysis. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 45(3): 249–285.
  • Malm, R.N. & Rachie, K.O., 1971. Setaria millets: a review of the world literature. Station Bulletin No 513. Experiment Station, University of Nebraska College of Agriculture, Lincoln, United States. 133 pp.
  • Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, 2002. Field crops technical handbook. 2nd Edition. Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Nairobi, Kenya. 219 pp.
  • Petr, J., Michalik, I., Tlaskalova, H., Capouchova, I., Famera, O., Urminska, D., Tukova, L. & Knoblochova, H., 2003. Extension of the spectra of plant products for the diet in coeliac disease. Czech Journal of Food Sciences 21(2): 59–70.
  • Siles, M.M., Baltensperger, D.D. & Nelson, L.A., 2001. Technique for artificial hybridization of foxtail millet (Setaria italica (L.) Beauv.). Crop Science 41(5): 1408–1412.
  • Siles, M.M., Russell, W.K., Baltensperger, D.B., Nelson, L.A., Johnson, B., van Vleck, L.D., Jensen, S.G. & Hein, G., 2004. Heterosis for grain yield and other agronomic traits in foxtail millet. Crop Science 44(6): 1960–1965.
  • Wanous, M.K., 1990. Origin, taxonomy and ploidy of the millets and minor cereals. Plant Varieties and Seeds 3(2): 99–112.

Sources of illustration

  • Rahayu, M. & Jansen, P.C.M., 1996. Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauvois cv. group Foxtail Millet. In: Grubben, G.J.H. & Partohardjono, S. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 10. Cereals. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 127–130.
  • Hanelt, P. & Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (Editors), 2001. Mansfeld’s encyclopedia of agricultural and horticultural crops (except ornamentals). 1st English edition. Springer Verlag, Berlin, Germany. 3645 pp.


  • M. Brink, PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article

Brink, M., 2006. Setaria italica (L.) P.Beauv. In: Brink, M. & Belay, G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 8 July 2021.