The science bit
Clumped rhizomatous, perennial grass up to 6m tall. Stem stout, cane-like, jointed, greenish-violet. Leaves linear-lanceolate, up to 180cm long, rough spiny margins. Flower stalk (inflorescence) pyramidal, up to 90cm tall. Flower spikelets enveloped by white pubescence. Pollinated by wind.
- Nearly 90% of the weight of the cane is juice, which contains up to 17% sucrose (common sugar) and small amounts of dextrose and fructose.
- Sugar cane was possibly the first industrial crop and has a long association with slave labour. It was taken to the New World by Columbus as a potential cash crop and by 1600 sugar production in the subtropical and tropical Americas had become the world’s largest and most lucrative industry. Harsh conditions and the influx of diseases soon decimated the local Caribbean population, so African slaves were brought in. The Caribbean was the centre of world sugar production from the 1650s until the 1850s.
- Sugar cane is now grown in over 100 countries, most of which are underdeveloped. The world sugar trade is complex and controversial as production costs differ around the world. Some think that sugar trade agreements can act as an effective way of providing aid that has a beneficial effect on the communities in developing countries.
- The swollen roots of another plant, sugar beet (Beta vulgaris), also make a major contribution to the world population’s seemingly unstoppable craving for sugar.
Where it grows
Sugar is native to tropical South-East Asia and Polynesia.
Sugar cane sticks were first chewed for their sugary sap in New Guinea 10,000 years ago. Today we consume around 3kg a week each! Nutritionally we don’t need sugar, and its role in rotting teeth and increasing obesity – particularly as a hidden ingredient in processed food – has become a significant global health issue.
Sugar cane can also provide renewable energy: in sugar-producing countries bagasse (waste fibre) and trash (dead leaves) provides electricity and heat for sugar processing and the local community and industry; bioethanol fermented from sugars extracted from cane juice can produce fuel for cars.
- Lanceolate: narrowly ovate and tapering to a point.
- Perennial: lives for at least two years.
- Pubescence: furry.
- Rhizomatous: with rhizomes, which are underground, horizontal stems, not roots.