sugarcane, tall tropical perennials (species of Saccharum, chiefly S. officinarum ) of the family Gramineae (grass family), probably cultivated in their native Asia from prehistoric times. Sugarcane somewhat resembles corn and sorghum, with a large terminal panicle and a noded stalk. In biblical times, one of the known sweetening agents in the world was honey. It was not until the Middle Ages that the "Indian honey-bearing reed" was introduced to the Middle East and became accessible to Europe, where sugar was sold from druggists' shelves as a costly medicinal or luxury. Later, sugarcane plants were introduced by Spanish and Portuguese explorers of the 15th and 16th cent. throughout the Old and New World tropics, and the large cane industry rapidly took shape. Today, sugarcane and the sugar beet (see beet), a temperate plant developed as a commercial sugar source c.1800, are the only two major economic sources of sugar. Cuba and India together produce a large percentage of the world's tropical sugar, cane sugar. Cane is harvested by cutting down the plant stalks, which are then pressed several times to extract the juice. The juice is concentrated by evaporation into dark, sticky sugar, often sold locally. Refined sugar, less nourishing as food, is obtained by precipitating out the non-sugar components. Almost pure sucrose, it is the main commercial product. Byproducts obtained from sugarcane include molasses, rum, alcohol, fuel, livestock feed, and from the stalk residue, paper and wallboard. Sugarcane is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Cyperales, family Poaceae (Gramineae).
See A. C. Barnes, The Sugar Cane (2d ed. 1973); B. Albert and A. Graves, ed., World Sugar Economy in War (1988).