Is sugar cane a plant or a tree

Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) is a plant from the sweet grass family (Poaceae) and is assigned to the subfamily Panicoideae with about 3270 other species. Its origin is in East Asia, but today it is grown in all climatically suitable regions. The plant is the most important raw material supplier for the production of table sugar (sucrose) and, increasingly, also for the production of bioethanol.


Sugar cane is a monocotyledonous plant with the grass-like appearance typical of Poaceae. The stalks have a diameter of 20 to 45 mm and a height of 3 to 6 meters. They have rhizomes, panicle-shaped flowers from 40 to 60 cm and fruits with a length of about 1.5 mm.[1]



The history of the use of sugar cane began around the 5th century BC. In the East Asian region, which is also considered to be the origin of the plant. The Malay Archipelago, New Guinea and China are given as the original regions of origin, but the exact genetic origin is unclear.

This plant gradually made its way to the Middle East through trade around the 1st century AD. It was discovered that the crystallized sugar juice has a much longer shelf life and is easier to transport. On their expansion trains, the Arabs spread the culture of sugar cane cultivation along the edges of the Mediterranean as far as Morocco and Sicily, among other places. Thanks to sophisticated technologies, they even succeeded in cultivating them in central Spain, which is very far north for a tropical or subtropical plant. Western Europe got to know sugar as a luxury food in the wake of the Crusades. The crusaders took control of the cultivation of sugar cane in the areas they had conquered and occupied. Venetian merchants soon began setting up sugar factories near Tyrrhus, Crete, and Cyprus. There was a massive collapse in sugar production in the Mediterranean area as a result of the plague epidemic in the late Middle Ages. Some historians see this crisis as the actual beginning of the link between labor-intensive sugar cane cultivation and the use of slaves. North Africa, Europe and the Middle East have been supplied with sugar from the Mediterranean for centuries; the production facilities there only lost their importance when the areas that had been discovered in the New World and climatically more suitable for cultivation took over. On his second trip in 1493, Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane cuttings to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.[2] The Portuguese also brought it to West Africa in the Bay of Benin. Because of the difficult processing, sugar was still very rare at this time and not affordable for ordinary people. Until sugar beet was grown from beetroot in the middle of the 18th century, sugar cane remained the only raw material source for sugar production.

Plantation economy in the Caribbean and in the USA

After Columbus imported the first sugar cane saplings, the Caribbean developed into the main growing region for sugar cane and cane sugar, the main foreign trade product of the European Caribbean colonies, in the 16th century. The cultivation of sugar cane started an enormous demand for work slaves. European slave traders exchanged manufactured goods (guns, alcohol, fabrics, etc.) for slaves on the West African coast and sold them in the Caribbean. It is believed that between 10 and 15 million Africans were deported to America in the course of the Atlantic slave trade. France's interest in the Caribbean sugar cane business was so great that in 1763 it gave up its territorial claims in Canada in order to be recognized by the British as the motherland of the islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia. "How powerful the Sugar Party was is shown by the fact that the National Assembly in Paris on March 20, 1790 restricted the validity of the general human rights proclaimed during the French Revolution to the motherland."[3] For the same reasons, in order to secure their rule in Suriname, the Netherlands refrained from giving back their North American colony, Nieuw Nederland, by England.[4][5][6]

The French, who brought the plant to their Louisiana colony at the beginning of the 18th century, were responsible for the introduction of sugar cane cultivation on the North American mainland. However, it was not until the 1750s that the planters began to be interested in it. Many of them had fled Saint-Domingue in 1804. In the period from 1796 to 1800 in Louisiana, where until then mainly tobacco and indigo had been grown, at least 60 plantations switched to sugar cane. It was during this period that the plant first brought wealth to its growers, and it became a major Louisiana crop in the 1810s and 1820s. This was now part of the United States and until the Civil War (1861-1865) the most important national sugar cane grower. Louisiana was actually unsuitable for growing sugar cane, and the plant actually only thrives in some parts of the south of the state. After the end of the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and the recognition of the USA by Great Britain, however, the entrepreneurship of the planters and the number of available slaves were so great that this disadvantage could easily be compensated for. In contrast to the cotton plantations, where women were employed to the same extent as men, the sugar planters attached importance to young male workers. The work on the sugar cane plantations was extremely hard and the life expectancy of the slaves employed here was short. A relatively short growth period, which required constant care, was followed by the meal, cooking and cleaning seasons, in which the slaves had to work almost around the clock. These processes have only been mechanized since the middle of the 19th century. In Florida, which today is the second important sugar cane growing area in the USA alongside Louisiana, sugar cane cultivation only began on a large scale after the Civil War.[4][7][8][9]

Today's meaning

Today sugar cane is grown worldwide in the tropics and subtropics and represents at least around 70% of total sugar production [10]. Main growing countries according to the volume of their production (2005 and 2010 in 1,000 t)[11] are:

  • Brazil (422 957 // 717.462)
  • India (237.088 // 292.300)
  • China (87.578 // 111.454)
  • Thailand (49,586 // 68,808)
  • Mexico (51.646 // 50.422)
  • Pakistan (47.244 // 49.373)

Cane sugar can be offered cheaper than beet sugar on the world market. In the EU it was for a long time unable to compete with the beet sugar produced in the EU because of the European sugar market regime, which was supposed to protect the domestic market through tariffs, quotas and subsidies. In 2004 the World Trade Organization (WTO) decreed the gradual opening of the European market, which led to a further increase in the importance of cane sugar.[12] From 2000 to 2012, the annual world sugar harvest (i.e. from sugar cane and beet) increased from almost 140 million t by around 30% to 177 million t of raw value (sugar).[13] Above all, the production of sugar cane rose from 1.26 billion tons (2000) to 1.71 billion tons (2010), while the production of sugar beet (sugar content around 20%) since the peak in 1989 with a production of 314 million Tons decreased over 250 million tons in 2000 to 228 million tons in 2010.[11]

Cultivation and harvest

Sugar cane grows in subtropical and tropical climates. In order to thrive properly, the undemanding sugar cane needs temperatures between 25 and 30 ° - if it is colder, growth slows down, below 15 ° C the plant no longer grows. The plant's water requirement is very high - but it must not stand, otherwise the plant will rot. So hilly growing areas are advantageous.[14]

Sugar cane harvest without machines

The sugar cane is planted using cuttings. Stalks from the lower part of the “sugar cane stalks”, which have two to four knots, are used. Depending on the level of technology, they are either manually or mechanically placed in rows one behind the other in the ground and piled up so that the stalks are lightly covered with soil. The row spacing is 1.2 to 1.5 m. Within the row, the spacing is chosen so that ultimately 15,000-20,000 cuttings are planted per hectare. After one to two weeks, the cuttings sprout, that is, they form roots and shoot new stalks (tubes) around the eyes (buds). The stand needs around 3 to 6 months of growth before the rows are closed.

The first harvest, cutting the cane, can be done 9 to 24 months after planting out. The time of harvest depends on the sugar content and degree of ripeness. The stalks are cut off directly above the ground and the sugarless leaf apparatus removed at the top. This is often still done by hand or with sugar cane harvesters. The "stalks" spring out again and after a further 12 months the next harvest can be cut. A sugar cane crop can be harvested up to 8 times. In India the useful life is e.g. B. 2 cuts, in Brazil however 5 cuts. A sugar cane plant can live up to 20 years.

Sugar cane is harvested around the world at different times, which can be found in an overview on the homepage of the World Association of Beet and Cane Growers (WABCG) World sugar harvests are shown.

The working conditions in the sugar cane fields are sometimes problematic. Often children are used as workers; low pay is the order of the day in the regions where sugar cane is grown. Brazilian plantation workers receive around 1.4 reais (approx. 60 euro cents - as of June 2007) per ton of sugar cane chopped. The daily output for good workers is around 15-20 tons.


Sugar cane plant (Saccharum officinarum), Illustration from Koehler 1887

Sugar cane is mainly used for the production of sugar. The sugar juice is pressed out of the tube. The fibrous part remains as a by-product, the bagasse, which is also used. In addition, the complete plant or plant parts and parts are used for various purposes.

Sugar juice

File: A video of Sugarcane juice extraction.ogv Sugar can be found in sugar cane - mainly sucrose - with a pulp of 10 to 20%, and in good weather even more. The sugar juice obtained by pressing is processed into cane sugar through crystallization and refining. In addition to the production of the staple food sugar, sugar cane juice, freshly squeezed and chilled, is also popular for making beverages. In Cuba or Spain, sugar cane juice is called guarapo, in Brazil as caldo de cana or garapa designated. In the Arab countries this drink is called قصب qaṣab, dialectally (e.g. in Egypt and the Levant) ʾaṣab. Various spirits are also made from the juice. In Paraguay z. B. a schnapps is distilled from the fermented sugar cane juice, which after the addition of caramel or caramel as caña referred to as. In Colombia, aguardiente is distilled from sugar cane and aniseed. In Brazil, the Caipirinha cocktail is based on the sugar cane liquor Cachaça. Rum, on the other hand, is mostly made from sugar cane molasses, the residual syrup still containing sugar that is left over from sugar production.

Bioethanol made from sugar cane is becoming increasingly important as a fuel or biofuel. Like sugar cane spirits, this is converted into alcohol by fermenting sugar in sugar cane juice or molasses. In the subsequent distillation, almost pure alcohol is obtained, which can be used in certain internal combustion engines (flexible fuel vehicles). For example, around 16 billion liters of ethanol are produced annually in Brazil and used largely as fuel for cars, but also for airplanes such as the propeller-powered agricultural aircraft Embraer EMB 202A.
Lately, ethanol production from sugar cane in Brazil has been expanded even further, which has significant social and environmental consequences. [15]


Bagasse, sugar cane after extraction

About 30% of the bagasse left over from the production of sugar juice is used as fuel in sugar production to provide heat and electricity. The remaining 70% is used as raw material in various areas:

  • Fuel for energy production (electricity)[16]; the island of Mauritius generates 30% of its electrical energy by burning bagasse
  • as fuel in the household, e.g. B. as a briquette
  • as a chipboard-like material (fiberboard) for furniture production; but also in the automotive industry, for example for door panels
  • because of the high cellulose content as a raw material for the production of paper, cardboard and packaging materials
  • as fodder for ruminants such as sheep, goats and cattle
  • in the chemical industry as a basis for the production of furfural and other chemicals.


Chopped sugar cane as goat feed, location: Tijucas, Brazil

In chopped form, sugar cane is an important fodder. In contrast to bagasse, it still contains sugar and the chaff is therefore much more valuable than bagasse.

Sugar cane was famous for its dental care properties. In old travel reports from the 19th century it was repeatedly described what excellent teeth the plantation workers or indigenous people had, which was attributed to the chewing of sugar cane. It seems paradoxical that a sugary plant has dental care effects - this is probably due to the “brushing function” of the rough parts of the plant. Since the fresh cane does not last very long, this aspect of the plant was forgotten again. In rural areas, however, sugar cane is still chewed during the sugar cane harvest.

A wax (policosanol) can be obtained from sugar cane, some of which is also used industrially.

The sugar cane fibers (leaves) are used as an alternative to wood fibers for the production of paper or molded fiber parts (similar to egg cartons).


  • Henry Hobhouse: Six plants change the world. Cinchona bark, sugar cane, tea, cotton, potato, coca bush. Klett-Cotta, Hamburg 2001 (4th edition). ISBN 3-608-91024-7 (exciting story to read with a completely different perspective)
  • Christoph Maria Merki: Sugar versus saccharin. On the history of artificial sweeteners. Campus, Frankfurt a.M.-New York 1993. (Diss. Bern 1990) ISBN 3-593-34885-3 (on the history of the competition between natural and artificial sweeteners)

Individual evidence

  1. ↑ GrassBase - The Online World Grass Flora: Saccharum officinarum , Clayton, W.D., Harman, K.T. and Williamson, H., accessed March 15, 2010
  2. ↑ Kathleen Deagan and José María Cruxent: Columbus's Outpost among the Taínos. Yale University 2002. ISBN 0-300-09040-4.
  3. ↑ Deutsches Museum: Sugar cane and slavery
  4. 4,04,1Sugar and Slavery: Molasses to Rum to Slaves
  5. The Sugar Trade in the West Indies and Brazil Between 1492 and 1700
  6. The Sugar & Slave Trades
  7. Antebellum Louisiana: Agrarian Life
  8. Sugar cane cultivation in Florida
  9. ↑ Ira Berlin: Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, Cambridge, London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-674-01061-2, pp. 146f, 179f
  10. ↑ Various a.o.
  11. 11,011,1Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) FAOSTAT - Production - Crops, Agricultural statistical information database, accessed January 2, 2013
  12. ↑ Süddeutsche Zeitung: "Rohr proposes Rübe", article from March 10, 2010
  13. ↑ Economic Association of Sugar (WVZ) Sugar production, under Sugar Market / Facts and Figures / World Sugar Market / Production and Consumption; Retrieved January 2, 2013
  14. under Manufacture, accessed January 2, 2013
  15. ↑ Save the Rainforest Rainforest Report 03/2009 ""
  16. ^ "Sugar cane instead of oil", the company's own presentation of a project for energetic use of the barge, commissioning in 2010, accessed on March 15, 2010

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