Sugar Cane

Saccharum officinarum

Herbs gallery - Sugar Cane

Common names

  • Sugar Cane

A perennial plant, sugar cane usually grows in clusters comprising several strong branchless stems. Underneath the soil, there is a rhizome network that gives rise to secondary shoots close to the parent plant. The different stems may have different colors, varying from green, purple or pinkish. Usually, the sugar cane stems grow up to a height 5 meters (16 feet). The stems are jointed with nodes appearing at the base of alternately arranged leaves. The internodes of sugar canes enclose fibrous whitish pith that is absorbed in a sugary sap.

The leaves of sugar cane plants are elongated, horizontal and have a green hue. The leaves come with broad midribs and their edges are saw-toothed, growing up to 30 cm to 60 cm (12 inches to 24 inches) in length, while they are about 5 cm (2 inches) wide. On the side of the branches, there are small spikelets that measuring roughly 3 mm (0.12 inch) in length. The spikelets are usually covered by clusters of lengthy, silky hairs. The fruits of sugar cane plants are dry and each fruit encloses a solitary seed. Usually, the canes are harvested before the plants begin to bear flowers, because the blooming process uses up much of the plant's nutrients and energy, thereby reducing their sugar content.

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It is believed that sugar cane has its origin in the South Pacific, from where it was spread by travelers to Eastern as well as North Africa, New Guinea, the Middle East, India, Malaysia and China after their conquest of these regions. According to available documents, people have cultivated sugar cane for over 2,200 years. In fact, Alexander the Great's army first recorded that they saw sugar cane plants in India some time around 326 B.C. In 1150 A.D., sugar cane was introduced into Spain and, by this time, as many as 74,000 acres or 30,000 hectares were under cultivation. Precisely speaking, sugar cane was taken to several, if not all, countries in the Caribbean region, Africa, South America, the Far East and Europe by this time. It has been found that sugar cane will grow well in any place having tropical or sub-tropical conditions and favourable soil.

It may sound incredible, but basically sugarcane is a type of grass belonging to Poaceae family. Sugarcanes contain high concentrations of sugar and, hence, this crop is currently being cultivated in more than 200 countries across the globe. According to data, Brazil was the highest producer of sugarcane in 2005, while India ranked second in the world. In addition to being the main source of sugar, in India people also consume sugarcane raw. The juice extracted from sugarcane is highly beneficial for our overall health, as it is packed with an assortment of nutrients that are essential for our body. A natural revitalizing drink, sugarcane juice supplies us with loads of instant energy and is always preferred to refined sugar that is added to various beverages.

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Believe it or not, precisely speaking there is no plant called sugar cane. On the other hand, there are about 37 various dissimilar forms of grass that are often believed to belong to this specific cane family. It is possible to cross breed many of these grasses, thereby developing new hybrids that will possess the aptitude to grow as well as thrive in various different climatic conditions.

Most of the sugarcane varieties that we see today have their origin in places having tropical climatic conditions across the globe. Some of the regions when one or several forms of sugarcanes are grown, cultivated and harvested include South America, Africa and some regions in Asia, especially India.

There are numerous different types of sugar products that are prepared from sugarcanes. Apart from the common sugar that is used in various recipes, commercial use of sugarcanes includes making molasses, rum, various soft drink products, soda in addition to an assortment of sweeteners that are employed to flavour frozen foods in some way or the other. In addition, raw sugars are also used for making hard candies as well as other confectionery items that can be stored at room temperatures for several days together.

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Sugar is only one product of sugarcanes. In fact, sugar canes are used to manufacture a wide assortment of products. The pulp of sugar cane as well as the external parts of the plant's stem can be used for making cardboard, various types of paper, woven furniture, and even disposable utensils used for eating food. Some parts of the sugarcane husk are burnt in furnaces to generate heat. In addition, the husks of sugarcane stalks can be burned separately or with other materials like wood or coal to produce heat.

The techniques involved to extract sugar from sugarcanes vary somewhat. However, these processes generally involve two main steps. The first step involves separating the sucrose from the cellulose inside the cane itself. Basic raw sugar is obtained after this step. In the second step, the basic raw sugar undergoes a refining process, which produces various sugar products like powdered or granulated sugar. While the second step is in progress, the sugarcane husks can be taken away for manufacturing other products from them.

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Today, it is really difficult to ascertain the precise place and period when people extracted sugar from sugar cane for the first time. Nevertheless, several experts are of the view that the practice of extracting sugar from the canes has its origin in what is now known as Asia. There is some evidence regarding this, as processed sugar crystals found in the region are more than 5,000 years old. However, it is believed that the use of sugarcane in the form of food as well as a raw material for other food products started much before this time.

Parts used

Stems, roots.

Uses

Apart from its widespread use for producing sugar, traditionally sugar cane has also been used for therapeutic purposes. People in Southeast Asia have been using sugar cane for treating various dissimilar health problems varying from coughs to constipation. At the same time, it has also been used topically for treating skin complaints.

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In Ayurveda, the ancient Indian herbal medicine system, the roots as well as the stems of sugar cane are used to treat problems related to the skin and the urinary tract. They are also used for effectively dealing with other health conditions such as anemia, heart conditions, bronchitis, cough, constipation, and promote breast milk production. Many ancient texts related to Ayurvedic medication, also hint that sugar cane was used for treating jaundice and hypotension or low blood pressure conditions. Traditionally, people used a paste made from sugar to pack wounds as well as to facilitate recuperative healing.

It has also been found that sugar cane is effective for putting off and treating conditions like common cold, flu and sore throat. At the same time, drinking sugarcane juice is said to accelerate recovery from jaundice.

Since sugarcane juice has a low glycemic index, its use aids in maintaining sound health and keeping the body fit.

As sugar cane does not enclose any simple sugar, the juice extracted from its stems can be consumed by diabetic people without any concern about rising blood sugar levels. However, people suffering from type 2 diabetes should drink sugar cane juice in limited amounts.

The juice of sugarcane is alkaline in nature and, hence, it is beneficial for the body. This sweet juice aids in combating some forms of cancer, particularly prostate and breast cancers.

Sugar cane supplies the body with glucose, which is stored in the form of glycogen and whenever the muscles require energy for any activity, they burn up this glycogen. Hence, sugar cane is considered to be among the best energy resources.

It is suggested that people who have been exposed to long hours of physical activity and/ or heat should drink sugar cane juice to replenish the energy lost due to them. At the same time, drinking sugar cane juice will also help to make the body hydrated quickly. In fact, the juice of sugar cane is a wonderful substitute for cola and other aerated drinks.

Sugarcane juice is also said to reinforce the stomach, heart, brain, kidneys, eyes, as well as the sex organs. Drinking sugarcane juice also augments urine flow and assists the kidneys to function effortlessly.

In addition, sugarcane juice has been found to be beneficial for people suffering from febrile or feverish conditions. As we are aware, febrile conditions lead to fevers, which can cause the body to lose significant amounts of protein. In such cases, consuming sugarcane juice in liberal amount supplies the body with the requisite protein as well as other nutrients.

It has been found that sugarcane juice is also favourable for micturation, which is attributed to high acidity, in conjunction with enlarged prostate, gonorrhoea, nephritis and cystitis. Blending ginger juice, lime juice and coconut water with sugarcane juice will help in improving the condition faster.

Sugar cane encloses significant amounts of carbohydrates, which helps to refresh as well as rejuvenate the body. Sugarcane juice provides the body with instant energy and ensures that the muscles function properly and smoothly. As a result, sugarcane juice helps to enhance endurance as well as bring out the performance in sports.

Consumption of sugarcane juice also aids digestion. Owing to its elevated concentration of potassium, sugarcane juice can also be used in the form of a gentle laxative.

While it may seem to be something unusual, several body scrubs and exfoliating creams commonly contain sugarcane as an active element. This is mainly because sugar has a grainy texture and when processed it is useful for cleansing the body of the dead skin cells. Alternatively, you may combine sugarcane juice with freshly prepared lemon juice together with additional elements to prepare an absolutely natural and organic wax, which can be used to remove body hair.

Sugar has some unexpected uses as well, and one of them is its use for removing body hair. In fact, applying a blend of warm sugar paste, water and lemon juice is ideal for getting rid of body hair. After applying the paste, small cloth pieces are pressed within the paste and then torn off rapidly, taking the body hair along with these pieces. According to enthusiasts, initially the processes is somewhat painful, but the pain decreases with the passage of time. It is believed that the technique of sugaring was possibly practiced in South Asia since prehistoric days.

Culinary uses

Sugar produced from sugar cane has various culinary uses. In present time, sugar is not only a highly valued food, but is also an essential sweetener. Apart from this, sugar can also be used in the form of a delectable preservative. Unrefined and delicate sugars are prepared by heating sugar cane juice, thereby getting rid of its impurities and, at the same time, crystallizing the juice. It is worth mentioning here that sugar cane juice primarily contains sucrose. Refined, raw sugars are exported to various parts of the world for use in sweets and savoury dishes, beverages and refined foods. This sugar is also used for preserving meats and fruits. In addition, refined and raw sugar is either made into syrup or compressed into sugar cubes. White sugar can be processed further by grounding it into a delicate powder, which is also known as icing sugar that is usually used in baking, desserts and confectionery. In some parts of India, people sometimes steam the delicate young sugar cane shoots and also roast them for consumption as a vegetable.

Habitat and cultivation

Although sugar cane is native to the countries in Southeast Asia, currently it is extensively cultivated in most countries having tropical and sub-tropical climatic conditions across the globe. This plant is mainly cultivated for sugar production as well as a number of additional products.

Constituents

Chemical analysis of sugar cane has revealed that it is loaded with several vitamins and essential minerals, which are highly beneficial for our entire body. For instance, sugar cane juice contains loads of iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium. Findings of several scientific studies undertaken to ascertain the health benefits offered by sugar cane show that the juice of this plant may possibly help in restoring the vitamins loss taking place in our body owing to fevers and other febrile problems.

Collection and harvesting

Sugar cane should essentially be harvested at the appropriate time. In other words, these canes should always be harvested when they are at the peak of their maturity. Moreover, it is important to adopt the appropriate technique depending on the utmost height of the millable canes, which would produce least possible losses of their juice (read sugar) considering the environment in which they are grown. When you harvest too mature or under-aged canes with inappropriate harvesting techniques, it is bound to result in significant yield loss from the canes. As a result, the recovery of sugar is less; the juice quality is inferior, while there are a number of milling problems owing to unwanted matter.

Farmers in India harvest sugar canes when the plants have grown for anything between 10 months and 18 months, subject to the crop maturity and the time of planting. In sub-tropical regions, sugar canes are harvested when they have grown for 15 months, while crops planted during the spring or summers (which are actually late planted) are harvested after 10 months to 12 months. However, there are some early varieties that are harvested when they have grown for 10 months. The mid-late crops are usually harvested at 10 months to 12 months stage, while the late varieties are harvested later than the 12-month stage. The adsali crop grown in tropical regions is harvested after the plants have grown for 16 months to 18 months.

Usually, cutting blades, hand knives, or hand axes are employed for manual harvesting of sugar cane crops. Sugar cane harvesting can only be done by skilled labourers, because harvesting the canes inappropriately usually results in cane as well as sugar yield.

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