What is Sugarcane?

Debra Durkee

Sugarcane is perhaps best known as being the source for white sugar, but it is also a source of biofuel and syrup. The plant itself is actually a grass with a thick stem and feathered leaves, and has been grown in some parts of the world as a food crop since at least 6000 B.C. Sugarcane requires rich soils in order to thrive, and does best in a tropical or subtropical environment.

Sugarcane has been grown as a food crop since 6000 B.C.
Sugarcane has been grown as a food crop since 6000 B.C.

In the proper conditions, sugarcane can reach heights of up to 13 feet (4 m). Larger isn't always better, though, and soils that are too rich can produce larger canes with less sugar content. If allowed to grow long enough, feather-like plumes will sprout from the top of the cane. Usually it is harvested before blooming; if the canes are cut back to the ground, they will regrow in the next cycle. Plants are described by the thickness of the cane; thin canes are known as just that, while the more desired, higher-producing thick canes are known as noble canes.

Sugarcane is a grass with thick stems and feathered leaves.
Sugarcane is a grass with thick stems and feathered leaves.

The time it takes sugarcane to reach maturity varies between six and 24 months, depending on where it is being grown and the type of plant. In commercial settings, canes are generally cut back and allowed to regrow until they cease to become productive. When this happens, a new crop is planted. Instead of using seeds that will yield plants quite different from the parent plants, sections are taken from an adult cane and planted to begin a process called vegetative propagation. New plants develop from sections of the old, and are genetically the same as the original plants.

Originally from New Guinea, sugarcane spread first through Asia and India, then to the Mediterranean. It wasn't brought to North America until Columbus included it in his cargo, and has since remained a popular crop. Grown outdoors in areas where the temperature does not drop below freezing, it is also grown indoors in colder climates.

In addition to the traditional crystal form of sugar, it is also possible to use pieces of sugarcane to distill a sweet syrup called jaggery that can be used as a sweetener in a way similar to sugar crystals. In India, this syrup is also used in the brewing of alcohol. Pieces of the sugarcane can also be chewed just as they are harvested, and the shoots of the cane are often eaten as a vegetable dish in Asia. Sugarcane can also be used for making paper, floor waxes, and polishes, and is found in several kinds of cosmetics.

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Discussion Comments


Sugarcane seems to be quite popular in India. However, their market is quite different than our American market, so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise.


Though I've never had pure sugarcane before, I imagine that it would taste at least a fair bit better than what we get in the grocery stores. After all, we should remember that most foods on the market come in different brands, and are usually processed before being shipped out. For example, a few years ago, I did a comparison between two brands of sugar, and one of them tasted really cheap. Always be a smart consumer, and choose the best, most natural brand.


When people think of sugar, they mostly think about the tiny white crystals that people use to sweeten things. However, making sugar is definitely a process, and this article really shows that. Speaking of which, I was watching a video on YouTube the other day, and it was a very interesting process. The funny thing is that it applies to many food products. Though we put them on our plate without much thought, people work hard to make sure consumers get what they need.

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