We love our candy, chocolate, and cake, but too often take the source of sweetness for granted. So, today we’re going to learn about sugarcane, the number one commercially harvested plant in the world! This grass-type plant takes center stage in food production and cultural history as well as the dessert table. Plus, you can learn how to grow sugar cane in your home garden, which is as close as we’ll get to cultivating our own sweets.
Around the word, sugarcane is grown for – you guessed it – sugar. This sweet plant is responsible for over 70% of the world’s sugar supply (the rest is largely from sugar beets). In 2017 alone, 1.8 billion tons of commercial sugarcane was produced, with 40% of it coming from Brazil.
Besides food production, sugarcane is also used in ethanol. This is usually made from corn, but sugarcane has proven to be twice as effective. After the sugar has been used, the rest of the plant is put to use for paper products or animal food. This plant has more potential uses and is even becoming incorporated in biodiesel.
Mass production and alcohol aside, sugarcane also makes a fantastic addition to the home garden. You’ll find that growing your own sugar is fun, easy, and sweet. Plus, the grassy plant will fit right in with any landscaping!
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Quick Care Guide
Curious about how to grow sugar cane? We’ve got all the info! Source: irodman
|Common Name(s)||Sugar cane, sugarcane, plume grass|
|Scientific Name||Saccharum officinarum, Saccharum sinense, Saccharum barberi|
|Days to Harvest||1 year|
|Water:||Consistently moist, 1-2″ per week|
|Fertilizer||High nitrogen and phosphorus|
|Pests||Sugarcane grubs, borers, aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, termites|
|Diseases||Sugarcane smut, mosaic virus, eyespot|
All About Sugar Cane
It’s hard to trace the sugar cane origin because it’s so old. Popular belief is that the common variety, Saccharum officinarum, was domesticated in 4000 BC in New Guinea. Other common species, such as Saccharum sinense and Saccharum barberi, are believed to have originated in southern Asia and India, respectively.
Since then, sugar cane growing has slowly made its way around the globe. It made its way to the Mediterranean around 700 AD and the Caribbean in the 1400s. Today, sugarcane is a main export of many Caribbean islands and South America. In the US, it’s produced largely in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Hawaii.
So what is sugar cane and what does sugar cane look like? The original sugarcane species may be sweet, but in looks they’re pretty generic. However, some hybrids have been developed for ornamental gardening and have beautiful red, purple, or white-striped stalks.
The thick stems look similar to bamboo, thanks to the horizontal joints spaced 4-10 inches apart. Each joint, or node, produces a leaf blade and bud that are protected by a sheath that wraps around the stem. You’ll find this anatomy on many cane plants, including dumbcane.
The stems grow to 2 inches in diameter and shoot upwards. In its native climate, sugarcane can reach up to 20 feet tall. Here in the US, your plume grass will likely only be 5-8 feet tall and wide. Because it’s a rhizome, each plant produces multiple shoots that grow plumes of long, thin, and often sharp leaves.
As a tropical plant, sugar cane grows year-round in US zones 9-10. It can be cultivated as an annual in colder regions, but it may need to be started indoors. In the US, sugarcane is usually planted in late summer, overwinters, and grows for 7-8 months from spring to early fall. Though it takes a long time to mature, sugar cane grows pretty fast, especially in hot weather.
Remember how we said the sugarcane you grow will be much smaller than those in the tropics? That’s because sugarcane doesn’t stop growing until it’s harvested. In climates unhindered by winter, it can grow for a couple years before harvesting. This allows for large growth and a remarkable increase in sugar yield.
Planting Sugar Cane
Young sugar cane sprouting up from amongst some weeds. Source: parhessiastes
If you’re lucky enough to live in zones 9-10, you can plant outdoors in late summer to early fall. It will root over the winter and begin growing in the spring. With this schedule, you can expect to harvest a year from planting. If you live in a colder area, you can still cultivate sugarcane. However, you’ll need to keep it indoors during the winter since it isn’t frost hardy.
Outdoors, choose a location that gets lots of sun and has fertile soil. Because the plants are tall and bushy, they make excellent windbreakers for vegetable gardens. Keep in mind though that the leaves are sharp and may obstruct walkways. This plant is best put in a less-trafficked area.
For cultivation, sugarcane is almost exclusively grown from stem cuttings. You can order some online, buy starts, or take a cutting from a friend’s garden. We’ll go over taking cuttings in the propagation section below.
Plant your cuttings 6 feet apart in 6 inch furrows. You can simply place them on top of the soil or lightly bury them underneath. If you’re planting indoors, put each cutting in a large container with good drainage.
Sugarcane is a moderately-picky plant. You’ll be following some care rules to a T while treating others as guidelines. Once you get the hang of plume grass though, you’ll love watching it grow!
Sun and Temperature
Sugar cane is suited for its native tropical climate and zones 9-10. It thrives in temperatures from 90-100°F and full sun. Around harvest time, the ideal temperature drops down to about 55°F. These temperatures can vary, but the sugar yield will vary along with it. Remember though that it isn’t frost tolerant, so gardeners in cold climates may need space to bring it indoors over the winter unless the sugarcane is being grown as an annual.
Water and Humidity
Adequate watering is vital to healthy sugar cane. You need to keep the soil consistently moist without drowning the roots.
On average, these plants require 1-2 inches of water per week, depending on the temperature. Setting up a soaker hose system on a water timer that provides water twice a day can keep the soil consistently hydrated for the growing cane’s needs. Sugarcane also prefers some humidity, but will tolerate drier conditions.
Sugarcane will be happy in a variety of soil textures, as long as they hold moisture correctly. The soil needs to drain enough that water doesn’t pool around the roots. However, it also needs to be porous enough that you don’t have to water it 20 times a day.
Mulch is an excellent option for plume grass since it keeps the moisture in and the weeds out. Sugarcane will tolerate a wide range of pH’s, but 6.0 – 6.5 is ideal.
A healthy field of sugar cane. Source: zenra
Sugarcane relies heavily on nitrogen and phosphorus. How much of these nutrients you feed your plants depends on the amount already in the soil (here’s how to test the soil at home). Generally, an application of balanced fertilizer when the stem sprouts is fine. As the plume grass grows, gradually up the amount of nitrogen in the fertilizer and apply it every 1-2 months.
Water in the fertilizer after applying it so the roots can get straight to work. Sugar cane can be burned by too much fertilizer, so avoid overdoing it.
If you’re growing sugarcane for sucrose, don’t worry about pruning. On the other hand, if you use this sweet plant as a tall decorative grass, you may want to cut it back every now and then. As a grass, sugar cane can become quite unruly (and spiky!).
Prune back your ornamental sugar cane in the spring or summer to keep the size down. You can also stump it in the fall so it will regrow small the following spring.
As we mentioned, sugarcane is almost exclusively propagated by stem cuttings. Because it blooms so infrequently, seed propagation is usually only used in labs when developing new hybrids. So, let’s walk through the simple process of making and planting stem cuttings.
Let’s recap super quick: the sugar cane stem has stacks of nodes. Each node contains a sheath, leaf blade, and bud. When we propagate by stem cuttings, we’re relying on those buds to make a new plant. Even though a cutting may have 2 or more nodes, it will only produce a new rhizome from one.
To take a stem cutting, choose a healthy and mature stem. With a clean knife, cut a section that’s 2-3 nodes long. Clip any leaves but make sure each node has a bud. While the bud is developing, it will feed on the stored sugars in the cutting instead of relying on photosynthesis. Because of this, the amount of light you give the cutting doesn’t matter until it starts to produce new leaves.
Lay your cutting horizontally on the soil and keep it moist in the same way you would care for any plant cutting. Roots will emerge first and then a new stem will rise from a bud. In about a year’s time, your humble cutting will have grown into a mature sugarcane plant.
Sugar cane cuttings can also be rooted in water. Just place the cutting upright in a tall glass. As least one node should be submerged in water. After the roots and new stem show up, transfer the cutting to the soil so it can get some nutrients.
Harvesting and Storing
Sugar cane segments with their outer bark peeled and ready to enjoy. Source: c.mcbrien
After months of gardening, get ready to satisfy your sweet tooth! Here’s what you need to know about harvesting and extracting the sugar from cane.
For the best yield, let your sugar cane plant grow for as long as possible before harvesting. Aim to harvest them just before the first frost of every year, especially if you plan to make cane syrup.
To cut down the stems, you need something super sturdy like a machete or saw. Cut off each stem just above the ground, leaving the roots untouched. If you live in a tropical climate, it should regrow the next year. Next, throw on some gloves and pull each leaf off the stems. The leaves are excellent for mulch, but be careful of the sharp tips!
If you live in a tropical region, you may be able to get multiple harvests from your sugar cane plants. After the initial chop, the stump often grows ratoons, which are new sprouts of sugar cane. This yield will be significantly less than the original.
The sugar consistency depends on variety. Syrup canes have a more liquidy sugar while crystal canes crystallize easily. There are also chewing canes, which you can get to the sugar best by chewing on the fibers.
Commercially, sucrose is extracted from the stems with large, specialized machinery. Unless you happen to have access to one of those useful machines, we’ll take a different, more home-based approach.
Strip the outside of the stems and scrub each one well to remove any dirt. Then, cut the sugar canes into small segments that will fit inside your largest cooking pot. To extract the sugar, fill the pot with water, completely submerge the stems, and boil it for a few hours. When all the sugar is extracted from the stems, they will turn brown and the water will taste just like sugar.
Once ready, discard the spent stems and strain the water well to remove any debris. Transfer the sugar water back to the pot and bring it back to a boil, stirring occasionally. Let the water boil for a couple hours until the syrup has reached the desired consistency.
You can store freshly cut sugar canes for about two weeks in the fridge. Just wrap up the cut ends in plastic wrap and stick it in the crisper drawer. As with any piece of produce, it’s best used as soon as possible.
Store your freshly boiled syrup in sterilized glass canning jars. Let the syrup cool completely and then move the jars to the refrigerator. This reduces the chance of your sugar fermenting, although it doesn’t remove it completely. Use this syrup within two to three weeks or until it starts to smell like it’s fermenting.
For longer-term storage, you can cook the syrup down to a thick paste, then smear it onto dehydrator sheets used for making fruit roll-ups. Dehydrate it until you remove the majority of the moisture in the sugar, and then immediately after removing it from the dehydrator, roll it into a tube or cone shape. Once cooled, this can be used like Mexican cone sugar. Store your homemade cone sugar in an airtight container in the freezer until needed.
A side view of a sugar cane field. Source: The Shifted Librarian
The best thing you can do to keep your sugar canes healthy is choose resistant varieties and take good care of them. Regardless, here are some specifics of the problems you should be aware of.
Leaves yellowing and falling off can be completely normal or a bad sign. If only the bottom, older leaves are doing this, you don’t need to worry. Most plants shed their old leaves so they can focus their energy on regrowth. If the upper, newer leaves are yellowing though, this could be a symptom of underwatering or even a pests or disease.
In sugarcane, cane with a low yield and/or stunted growth is often a sign that it’s stressed. This is typically brought on by extended cold temperatures, bad soil fertility and pH, or inconsistent watering. It can most often be prevented and remedied by being consistent in providing for your plant’s needs. If this doesn’t fix it, you could be looking at a pest or disease problem.
The sugarcane white grub is aptly named because it loves to feed on sugarcane roots. This nasty larvae starts out in the soil where it drains the cane of its water and nutrients. In response, the sugarcane may yellow, wilt, and start to die. If left untreated, the grubs may eat the majority of the roots and even tunnel into the stem.
Prevent these grubs from showing up by keeping the soil healthy. Give it plenty of organic matter and keep it free from debris. Rotate your sugarcane with plants such as legumes each year or at least till the soil and keep it fallow for a month or so after harvesting.
If your plants are already infested, your best chance is to remove the grubs by hand when they emerge as grownup beetles. Alternately, you may want to try adding beneficial nematodes to the soil around your plants, particularly Steinernema feltiae (abbreviated SF). These microscopic worms are quite fond of most types of grubs and will eat them.
Sugarcane borers are just one type of borer that will attack this plant. This pest will bore through the stem as it eats up vascular tissue, ultimately destroying the stem structure. The damage also invites other pests and diseases to prey on the plant.
If you have a borer infestation, you’ll notice stunted growth, yellowing leaves, and holes throughout the plant. The key to eliminating and preventing them is to beat back the bugs when the larvae first emerge in spring. You can apply neem oil or organic insecticides intended for borers to kill the larvae before they attack the plant. Also, you can plant the sugarcane early, if possible, so it’s more mature and able to fight back when the pests show up.
Sugarcane may also be affected by common garden pests, such as aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, and termites. These can usually be controlled with applications of neem oil or beneficial insects, such as ladybugs. Diatomaceous earth is also an excellent option, though it isn’t as effective for mealybugs and spider mites.
Sugarcane smut is a fungus that will stunt and distort the growth of this plant. You’ll notice black, whip-like structures among the leaves. These produce spores that are easily carried by the wind to other plants. Your best defense is to use a smut-resistant variety.
Sugarcane mosaic virus is most often spread by pests, so the first thing to do is protect your plants against damaging insects. If this virus does settle in, you’ll notice a “mosaic” of coloring on the leaves in shades of green and red. Like smut, resistant varieties are the best approach.
Eyespot shows up as discolored, eye-shaped lesions running vertically on the leaves. This disease rarely impacts yields, but can definitely hurt the ornamental value of your plants. A fungicide may help with this disease, but, again, the most proven approach is to use resistant varieties.
Frequently Asked Questions
Long sugar cane stalks being loaded onto an oxcart for transport. Source: Beegee49
Q: How long does it take for a sugar cane to grow?
A: It takes at least one year to mature. However, it’s only actively growing for 7-8 months.
Q: What happens if we drink sugarcane juice daily?
A: The juice is actually full of antioxidants, so a small amount each day can be beneficial. However, it still has a high amount of sugar so it isn’t recommended for use for those with diabetes.
Q: Can I blend sugar cane?
A: Yes, you can use blended sugar canes to make juice. Just cut the stripped cane into small pieces, blend it with water, and strain.
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