Where Did Sugarcane Come From in the Columbian Exchange?

February 14, 2024

Sugarcane is one of the most important cultivated plants transferred to the New World during the Columbian Exchange. The plant is still widely grown in many parts of the world today. It is the main source of ethanol, which is a renewable fuel that can be used to replace some petroleum-based fuels. The crop is also used to make sugar, candy, molasses, flour, paper, and other products.

The plant was first domesticated in New Guinea about 8000 B.C., and was a key ingredient in Indian elite dishes by 350 A.D. During the Crusades to Jerusalem in the 1000's Europeans became especially fond of sugar, and it led to an increase in the demand for the plant in Europe. Because sugarcane needs a tropical climate to grow well, it was taken to the Caribbean Islands by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. This started hundreds of years of sugar production in the islands that we know as the Caribbean.

A member of the grass family, sugarcane resembles bamboo in appearance. Its cylindrical stems, called culms, are jointed, with the space between joints filled with a fibrous pith that yields sugar. The leaves are long and thin, with a thick midrib and rough edges. They grow in a feathery cluster at the top of the culms. The plant blooms in late summer or fall, producing tiny white or gray flowers on spikelets. The flowers turn into fruit, and the fruit is harvested. A single cane may produce more than a hundred fruits in its lifetime.


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