Sugarcane, a tall, perennial grass. It is a major source of commercial sugar, which is obtained from a juice found in the plant's waxy stalks. The stalks are about 2 inches (5 cm) thick and grow as high as 20 feet (6 m). At intervals along their entire length they bear long, swordlike leaves. The plant is topped with fluffy tufts consisting of plume-like flower clusters. Sugarcane grows best in a tropical climate, in fertile, moist soil; it is grown in almost all tropical and in many subtropical countries.

SugarcaneSugarcane is a tall grass plant with stout stalks rich in sugar.

Sugarcane is probably native to southern Asia and has been raised in India and China for more than 3,000 years. Columbus is believed to have carried it from the Canary Islands to the West Indies. Louisiana colonists were raising the plant by the middle of the 18th century. Historically, sugarcane is of importance in that it was the original basis for establishing plantations in the New World tropics. The high labor requirements on the plantations were a chief cause of the development of the slave trade.

Cultivation and Production

Sugarcane is the source of a number of other products in addition to sugar. Among these products are molasses, which is made by boiling sugarcane juice; and rum, which is distilled from fermented molasses or fermented sugarcane juice. Other products are made from bagasse, the woody residue left after the juice is extracted from the cane.

Sugarcane is planted by laying sections of stalk lengthwise in furrows. New plants spring from the buds normally found on the stalks. (Sugarcane plants produce seeds, but these are used for developing new varieties, not for planting.) The fields are laid out in rows far enough apart to permit the use of tractors. A network of ditches is used to irrigate and drain the fields.

Growing periods vary according to locale. In Louisiana, for example, the cane is ready to be harvested in about 9 months; in Hawaii, in 22 to 24 months. The cane is stripped of its leaves by hand with a machete (a long, heavy knife) or by machine. In some areas, the leaves are burned off by setting the fields aflame before harvest. Speed in removing the cane from the field is important because the sap dries out quickly. New shoots spring up from the stubble, and several crops may be harvested before a field is replanted.

Leading producers of sugarcane are Brazil, India, China, Pakistan, Mexico, Cuba, Thailand, Australia, and Indonesia. In the United States sugarcane is grown in Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii, and Texas.

Sugarcane is Saccharum officinarum of the grass family, Gramineae.