Saccharum officinarum L.
(Poaceae – the grass family)
common name: Sugar Cane
This is the plant that provides around 70% of the world’s sugar. The word ‘sugar’ is thought to have come to us from the Arabic sukkar, which in turn came from the Sanskrit sharkara. Sugar cane was probably first cultivated in New Guinea about 6000 BC, and, from about 1000 BC, was gradually spread along human migration routes to Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It was eventually taken to Europe by Alexander the Great. By the 7th century AD the Arab invasions spread the cane to a much wider area, including Egypt, Cyprus and Spain. Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage in 1493, took sugar cane to Santa Domingo for trial plantings, and this was the beginning of the Caribbean sugar industry which led to the development of the slave trade.
Australia’s first sugar cane was brought from the Cape of Good Hope by the first fleet. It would not grow at Sydney, but a plantation was established on Norfolk Island. The first successful sugar cane crops on the Australian mainland were grown near Brisbane by Captain Louis Hope in 1862. He was helped by John Buhot, who came from the West Indies and knew about growing sugar cane. Captain Hope opened Australia’s first sugar mill or Ormiston, near Brisbane, in 1865. By the end of 1867 there were 800 hectares of cane being grown in the Brisbane area. As cane-growing spread further north, mills were built at Maryborough and Mackay in 1866, Bundaberg in 1872 and Cairns in 1882. Today, raw sugar is Australia’s second largest export crop.
Sugar cane is a tall grass that looks rather like a bamboo cane, and grows 3–6 m high with culms 20–45 mm in diameter. The thicker-stemmed forms are commonly known as ‘thick’ or ‘noble’ canes because of their tall, handsome, colourful stems. The broad leaves are 70–150 cm long, grow alternately from the stem, and have a base that encircles it. Saccharum officinarum can be recognized by its hairless or short-haired panicle axis, and leaf-blades up to 6 cm wide. The fruit is an oblong caryopsis, 1.5 mm long.
The cane is grown from setts, which are cuttings from mature cane stalks. These are planted by machines that form a furrow, cut the cane stalks into pieces 40 cm long, drop them into the furrows, add fertilizer, and cover them with soil. A few weeks after planting, new shoots grow from the nodes of the cuttings. As many as 12 stalks can grow from one sett. Harvesting is nowadays done entirely by machine, usually after the cane has been burnt.
As well as producing sugar for food, the industry has diversified, and much ethanol is now produced from sugar cane, mainly in Brazil.
Sugar cane is also used medicinally. In southern Asia it is used to treat a wide variety of illnesses from constipation to coughs, and externally to treat skin problems. Both the roots and stems are used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat skin and urinary tract infections, as well as for bronchitis, heart conditions, loss of milk production, coughs, anaemia and constipation. It has also been used to treat jaundice and low blood pressure, and a sugar paste is used to pack wounds to aid healing.
Photographs © Donald Simpson taken 2011, Picnic Bay