Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) is a tall, clump-forming perennial grass that is native to the tropics of Southeast Asia.
Widely cultivated on a mass scale commercially, the long, thick stems are harvested for their sweet sap, which is most commonly used to make sugar and molasses. The wax produced by the stem is used to make paper, insulation for electrics, and in furniture production. Sugar cane is also used in fuel production and as an energy-producing biomass.
This plant is also a major resource for indigenous people, and they drink the sap and use the leaf ash medicinally. It is used to treat, amongst other things, snake bites, sore throats, wounds, and eye discomfort.
The plants that are grown commercially don't offer much ornamental interest, but there are a wide variety of cultivars that are now grown in garden landscapes.
Given sugar canes love of hot temperatures, they are typically grown as annuals, but they can be overwintered indoors. Just bear in mind they typically reach two or three meters (and sometimes more) in height.
Sugar cane makes an excellent privacy screen or border and can act as an interesting accent or focal point in gardens. The spent canes are also known for making a beneficial organic mulch.
The foliage colors vary depending on the cultivar you select, but they tend to be large and richly green with sharp edges - so sharp that care has to be taken when handling.
They typically produce flower spikes in the fall, although these will only bloom on plants being grown as perennials rather than annuals.
It is the stalks of sugar cane that makes them most easy to identify. They are thick and have jointed internodes, and the shades can also vary depending on the cultivar.
|Botanical Name||Saccharum officinarum|
|Common Name||Sugar Cane|
|Mature Size||Up to 6m tall, 1.5m wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full Sun, Partial Shade|
|Soil Type||Loam, Sand, Clay|
|Soil pH||Acid, Neutral, Alkaline|
|Hardiness Zones||8 - 12, USA|
|Native Area||Southeast Asia|
If you want to grow sugar cane as a perennial, you will need to live in a warm region that, ideally, receives a lot of precipitation, or grow them in containers that can be overwintered indoors. Otherwise, they can be grown as annuals.
For gardeners living in warmer regions, these plants can become invasive with the right conditions, so proper maintenance and consideration of where they are being planted will be important.
If you want to harvest your sugar cane, it can take up to two years before this is possible, and harvesting should be done before flowering as this uses up energy and the sugar concentration will not be so high.
Sugar cane does best in a full sun position. If you have a shady garden, this won't be the plant for you.
This plant can do well in most soil types, proving they are well-drained. It prefers it to be deep and friable (crumbly) too.
Sugar cane is known for being an energy-hungry plant. It saps the nutrients from soil rapidly. So a soil rich in organic matter is going to be important. Many enthusiasts mix a fertile compost and lime into the soil.
Sugar cane likes to be kept consistently moist. If you don't live in a region that gets a lot of rainfall, it will need a decent amount of additional irrigation.
The only time that watering should be tailed off is if you plan to harvest mature stems. At this point, a dry spell will be beneficial for slowing growth and increasing the sugar production in the lower part of the stalks.
Temperature and Humidity
These plants are famous for having excellent photosynthesis abilities, but they need high temperatures and plenty of sun for this to be maximized.
The amount of tolerance your sugar cane will have to cold will depend greatly on the cultivar you select. Most sugar cane varieties aren't all that cold hardy, and below-freezing temperatures can cause leaves to brown and wither, and the plant can die in prolonged periods of frost.
This is why they are best grown as annuals or overwintered indoors in colder regions.
This is one plant that definitely benefits from regular fertilization as they are greedy when it comes to nutrients. During their optimum growth period in the summer, your sugar cane will appreciate applications every week.
Although sugar cane is a vegetative crop that does well with decent quantities of nitrogen, be careful not to go too high as this can result in weak stems.
Most sugar cane cultivars grown as perennials reach at least two or three meters. If they are thriving and vigorously shooting up, they can begin to sprawl and loose their upright, clump-forming habit. If this happens, it is usually best to cut them back; otherwise, they can look untidy and can be difficult to maintain.
As mentioned, the cut stalks are excellent material for organic mulch, or they can be propagated to make new plants or even harvested.
Other than this, it is simply a case of removing any dead, withered foliage.
Propagating Sugar Cane
Sugar cane is typically propagated through stem cuttings, and the process is not complicated. Normally, taking a piece which has at least two internodes from the upper part of a healthy stem is best.
The cutting should be planted deep into the ground, making sure no more than five centimeters of the stem is visible above the soil - or you can simply bury it horizontally. It usually takes around a fortnight for shoots to start appearing on the nodes and roots to begin forming.