The Sugarcane (Saccharum officinale) - A grass, full of calories

This article was published before in the "Hortus Magazine" (December 2014) of the "Botanical Garden of Amsterdam"

 by Fred Triep  

Sugarcane has been known since antiquity and was probably originally from New Guinea. Persians, Arabs and Crusaders spread it all over the world. Sugar was long one of the main export products of the Dutch East Indies  

naar de Nederlandstalige pagina
(to the original Dutch version)

Amsterdam had in the nineteenth century hundreds of sugar cane refinery particles, which went up in 1882 in the WSR, the “Wester Suiker Raffinaderij”. This was at the Van Noordt Kade, near the IJ in Amsterdam. The factory was closed in 1965 because the production of sugar from sugar beet had become cheaper than those from sugar cane. My childhood is linked to this plant, because my father worked there all his life, until the closing of the factory.
The Dutch were already in the sixteenth century engaged in the cultivation of sugar cane and the marketing of sugar, which was cultivated in the Indian archipelago. Sugar was one of the products (in addition to indigo, coffee, tea and tobacco) from the culture system, which was introduced in 1830: the native population had to use twenty percent of the land for government products. The “Nederlandse Handels Maatschappij” (NHM) has been made for the transportation and sale of the sugar cane. After 1870 the sugar cane culture was privatized. In the early twentieth century, Java was after Cuba the  largest sugar producer in the world.

Grass Family

Besides sugar beet the sugar cane is the main supplier of sugar in the world. Sixty percent of the world production of table sugar (sucrose) comes from sugar cane. It is also the oldest known supplier, the beet was taken later in production.
Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) is one of the four species of the genus Saccharum that can deliver sugar. To the genus Saccharum belong approximately thirty-seven plantspecies. Sugarcane is one of the eight hundred species from the Grass Family (Poaceae). The grasses arised about 55 million years ago and have enabled the life of the large ungulates and the spread of modern humans (rice, wheat, corn, rye, oats). Like other grasses sugarcane is pollinated by the wind.
The noble sugarcane is a collection of plant varieties which originate from the wild grass Saccharum robustum and possibly two other species, namely Saccharum spontaneum and Saccharum sinense. The species S. robustum is native to the area of Borneo through New Guinea to the archipelago New Hebrides. The noble cane S. officinarum has shorter and thicker stems than the original S. robustum and contains significantly more sucrose in the marrow.
Sugarcane is a grass that can be three to six meter tall, with stems from two to four and a half cm thick. The up to six inches wide leaves can be seventy to one hundred and fifty cm long. The inflorescence is a large plume, but the cultivated sugarcane does not always seem to bloom.
Now sugarcane grows, thanks to the spread by humans in South-West Europe, Africa, temperate to tropical Asia, Australia, in areas in the South Pacific, the southeastern US, Mexico and South America

Alexander the Great

Before man could use sugar cane, he used honey as a sweetener. Sugarcane is known from ancient times and is probably native to New Guinea. There one chewed on the stems over eight thousand years ago. Probably sugarcane has been spread from about the year 1000 BC through the Philippines and Indonesia to India and China. The Hindus were the first to crush the stems and let evaporate the juice to a brown substance, which they called sarkara. From that name the word sugar has been derived.

The Crusaders took sugarcane to Europe, where it was long considered as a medicine

Through the Persians and the campaigns of Alexander the Great sugarcane came to the Mediterranean, after which it was further spread by the Arabs. The Crusaders took it to Europe, where it was for a long time a scarce resource, which was regarded as a medicine. The species designation officinarum recalls the use of pharmacists sugar. Sugarcane was then also planted in subtropical regions around the Mediterranean. Only after Columbus had brought the sugar cane culture to the West Indies, sugar was produced and used in increasing quantities.
Sugar cane was previously planted by hand: stems of about fifty cm in length were put into a hole in the ground and covered with sand. The labor-intensive sugar cane culture in South- and North America have been strongly linked to slavery. Now a planting machine makes in a single movement a hole in the ground, inserts the stem, adds fertilizers and insecticides and covers the whole with the basis.


Were in the past the stems used to cut by hand, now sugar cane are now increasingly being harvested  mechanically. From all the plants crops sugarcane appeared to deliver the largest amount of calories per surface land.
In the sugar factory, the juice is pressed out, and thereafter the sugar crystallized. For this purpose, the squeezed sugar cane juice refined: cooking with clean water and again evaporated.
The thick, viscous sap which remains after the refining is called molasse and it is the base for syrups and for the fermentation industry, inter alia for the production of citric acid, lysine, and bio-ethanol / biobutanol. Through the distillation of fermented molasse spirits like rum, grogue (Cape Verde Islands), cachaça (Brazil) and arak (Indonesia)  are made.
The fibrous material remaining after squeezing out the juice is called bagasse. This is used for papermaking and as fuel for the refining process. The pith of the stems is used as cattle feed.
In Brazil, now the biggest sugar cane producer in the world, now a large part of the sugar cane juice is fermented to alcohol, which can be admixed at car gasoline.

In the Botanical garden of Amsterdam the sugarcane can be found in the Educational greenhouse.


You can read everything about the sugar history (in Dutch) on:

Peter Perger has written about the  Amsterdam sugar factory WSR (in Dutch) on:

This page has been created on Saturday 3 January 2015.

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