Is Sugarcane a Seed-Bearing Plant?
The giant grass that gives most of the world its source of sugar, sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), is actually a hybrid crop plant resulting from crossing about six different species of Saccharum. The parent species of sugarcane produce abundant seeds, but many cultivars are mostly sterile and don’t bear seeds. Commercial sugarcane plantations grow vegetatively from seed cane, pieces cut from the stems of established cultivars and rooted. Actual seeds that result from pollination of sugarcane flowers are still used in hybridizing new sugarcane cultivars.
Sugarcane originated in southeastern Asia and the Pacific, where it was grown to chew the sweet juice from the stalks. Cultivated in New Guinea since about 6000 B.C., sugarcane spread gradually to Asia and India. The method of extracting sugar by boiling sugarcane juice developed in India around 1000 B.C. Sugarcane spread around the world with human travels, coming to the Americas on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. It is present in tropical and subtropical areas worldwide, growing in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 8 through 11.
Kinds of Sugarcane
Three basic types of sugarcane varieties exist, with some overlapping of cultivars that fit into more than one type: chewing canes, crystal canes and syrup canes. Chewing canes have softer internal fibers, allowing easier juice extraction and spitting out of chewed bits, and they are also used for syrup making. Crystal canes have a high sucrose content for increased formation of sugar or sucrose crystals when juices are heated and evaporated. Syrup canes have a lower sucrose concentration but contain additional types of sugars that remain liquid, making a syrup rather than a crystal. There are many named cultivars under each cane type. Some chewing cane cultivars are “Yellow Gal,” “Georgia Red” and “White Transparent.” Syrup canes include “Louisiana Ribbon,” “Louisiana Purple,” and “Louisiana Striped.” Crystal canes are mostly commercial cultivars with numeric designations rather than names.
Sugarcane seeds are very tiny, less than 1 mm long. They form on the tall, plumelike flower heads at the tops of sugarcane stems. Each seed has a covering of silky hairs built to catch the wind and disperse the seeds. The hairs give rise to the industry name of “fuzz” for the seeds. Some cultivars produce seeds, but they aren’t used in establishing plantations because the seeds don’t grow into the same kinds of plants as their parents. To preserve the characteristics of each cultivar, vegetative reproduction is the solution. Hybridizers actually breed to eliminate flowering in cultivars since flowering brings a stop to sugar production in the plant.
New sugarcane plants are established from cut pieces of stem from known cultivars. Cut longer stems into short pieces that contain about six eyes or nodes per cut piece of stem. Since the stems are used in place of seed, the pieces are called seed canes. You can keep shorter pieces of seed cane in a recloseable plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper drawer for up to two weeks before planting them. Seed canes go into furrows 3 to 7 inches deep, placed lengthwise at the bottom of the furrow and covered with 1 or 2 inches of soil. The eyes at each node will sprout, automatically turning upward to grow out of the soil. As sprouts emerge, gradually fill up the furrow with more soil and mound it around the base of the young plants as they grow.
Sugarcane plants grow 8 to 10 feet tall. After the first shoots are growing well, they produce new shoots from their bases, and these in turn produce more shoots. The furrow winds up filled with many shoots, forming a thick stand of stems. A single row of sugarcane can serve as a windbreak or barrier planting that gives you chewing canes at the same time. The strong vertical element makes sugarcane suitable for a bold accent plant. Choose varieties with an eye for color and form. The variety “Pels’s Smoke” has burgundy foliage and purple stems. Sugarcane makes a suitable container plant, with the advantage of moving it if you live in an area where frosts may occur. When planting seed canes in lower ranges of their hardiness zones, plant them in August to September so they have enough underground growth to resist frosts later in the season. An alternative is to plant them in November so eyes will remain dormant until spring.
- Seed Dormancy in Grasses; G. M. Simpson
- Kew Royal Botanic Gardens: Saccharum Officinarum (Sugar Cane)
- Online Plant Guide: Saccharum Officinarum/Sugar Cane
- Louisiana State University Agricultural Center: The Development of New Sugarcane Varieties at the LSU Agcenter
Cathryn Chaney has worked as a gardening writer since 2002. Her horticultural experience working in the nursery industry informs her garden articles, especially those dealing with arid landscaping and drought-tolerant gardening. Chaney also writes poetry, which has appears in “Woman’s World” magazine and elsewhere. Chaney graduated from the University of Arizona in 1992 with a Bachelor of Arts in English.
Is Sugarcane a Seed-Bearing Plant?. The giant grass that gives most of the world its source of sugar, sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), is actually a hybrid crop plant resulting from crossing about six different species of Saccharum. The parent species of sugarcane produce abundant seeds, but many cultivars are …
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