Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sugarcane Workshop Notes

I hopped over to Maui for a workshop. I'm already growing cane, but I'm surely no expert. I really needed to learn more about this crop. Well, the workshop turned out to be really good. I came back with all sorts of info. I'm posting my new gems of knowledge in order to have a handy diary for myself, plus pass the information along to other cane growers. Warning--- if you're not avid about cane, the rest of this post will be incredibly boring. 

More facts about cane than you ever wanted to know .....

... Sugarcane is a natural hybrid of two wild cane type grasses. Crosses back to these two ancestors are still being done as part of various breeding programs for commercial cane. 
... Sugarcane commonly mutates. I saw a example firsthand of a smooth, straight green cane eminating out of a banded, curved type clump. Interesting. 
... There are tens of thousands of cane varieties around the world. 
... There are a couple dozen Hawaiian varieties (about 30-35). It's difficult at this time to define them correctly because they go by multiple names (about 80 total) depending upon the region where they are being grown or even just the families growing them. 
... There is a sugarcane repository in Florida maintaining varieties. Samples of Hawaiian varieties were sent there many decades ago. Some are now being reintroduced to Hawaii since they went extinct here. 
...The different varieties of Hawaiian cane have different flavors. It can vary from smoky and heavy to light, very sweet, and "greenish". 
...Cane plants have three basic growth habits-- erect, semi erect, and recumbent. 
...Cane can be striped in coloration or solid colored. Color varies from light green to dark green, various shades of yellowish, shades of reddish, maroon, brownish. 
...Identification of the different varieties is accomplished by comparing traits that include growing habit, leaf habit (erect vs dropping), color of stalk, color of leaves, hairs on leaves, base of leaf structure, color of leaf sheath and ring, structure and color of nodes and internodes, type and number of buds, location of the buds, color of the root band of buds, shape of the leaf scar, furrow above the bud, general growth shape of the cane, presence and amount of wax, color of the internal flesh of the stalk. A leaf structure called the oracle is absent on most Hawaiian varieties, and if it does exist, it is very reduced. In some varieties the sheath cracks and splits to allow the growing bud through. Length of internodes not a good indicator. They can wildly vary due to environmental factors, in addition to the fact that internodes are longest at the base of a stalk and closest at the top. 
...Sugarcane is a nitrogen fixer but not via root nodules. Adjacent crops do not show any benefit while cane is alive and growing. Nitrogen fixation bacteria found in the stalk but is not active when soil is fertilie. Hawaiian cane varieties have this bacteria but have not been found to be fixating nitrogen. Why? Most likely soil has too much nitrogen. More research needs to be done. 
...Those having darker flesh have a more molasses like flavor. White canes have "cleaner" or greener flavor. Color is not indicative of sugar content. 
...Being in the grass family, the youngest growth is found at the top of the canes. Therefore the youngest and most viable buds will be on the upper 1/3 of the cane. 
...Although sugarcane produces flowers, most are sterile (cane is a "mule", a cross between two wild cane varieties). What little seed that might be produced has very poor germination. Thus sugarcane is not propagated via seed, but rather from tip cuttings. 
...Cane cuttings can be planted vertically, at an angle, or even laid horizontally and buried. 
...Cane tends to degrade in robust character when unthifty cane is used for propagation. Therefore only use robust canes for propagation. 
...For propagation, use the youngest part of the cane. Use 12"-18" cuttings. Ends do not need to be sealed but some home growers will seal ends with wood ash which acts as a barrier to various diseases and pests. 
...The bud grows to become a new stalk. In some cases the cane falls to the ground because of weight, thus this new stalk can root and become another plant 6-10' away from the mother plant. A form of natural propagation. 
...Allowing buds to grow into stalks, and allowing flowers to develop lowers the sugar content of the talk. Harvest the cane for maximum sugar content before bud growth and flowering. 
...Clumps that become overly stemmy should be cleaned up, removing the weedy stalks. This allows more robust stalks to grow better and have higher sugar content. 
...The sugar content is highest in the upper 1/3 of the stalk. Ok levels in the middle 1/3. Bottom third has poorer sugar content and often has a bit of bitterness. Thus upper 2/3 of cane best for sugar content. 
...If the stalk falls horizontally, the sugar content spreads out the length of the cane, but also the bitter characteristics spread through the length of the stalk too. Thus for home production tie up leaning or falling stalks  to maintain quality in the cane. Horizontal canes not best for home use. 
...Home production can use selective harvesting, taking out individual canes as they are developed sufficiently. It is not uncommon the begin harvesting 10-12 months after initially planting a cutting. Harvesting for maximum sugar should be done before the cane produces a flower or has upper buds developing into shoots. 
...Commercial harvesting cuts all the stalks at one time. Depending upon the variety and farm procedures, harvest is done every one to two years. 
...Clumps keep producing new canes for many years. In home production, a clump can remain vigorous for several years before showing decline. Some varieties need replanting every five years while others may last longer before cane production & quality declines. Commercially cane plants are usually removed and replanted on a set schedule, depending upon growing and harvesting practices. 
...The root clump is fairly shallow. Growth is horizontal. In windy areas, sugar cane is planted deeper into the soil in order to be more stable, less apt to be blown over. 
...A red rot is sometimes seen internally at the base of canes. This is fungal. It reduces the growth of the sugar cane. Juice from such canes is edible and tastes ok, but infected canes should not be used for propagation. 
...Cane is fairly drought tolerant,and is very responsive to water by producing good vegetative growth. 
...Cane grows very poorly in pots -container gardening. 
...Old Hawaiians grew more cane than they could eat or use for ceremonial purposes. It was an important part of their ag sysyem. They discovered that cane could be beneficial for growing sweet potato. Cane was often planted as a field border perpendicular to the prevailing winds and served as a wind break and dew & mist trap, thus significantly increasing soil moisture (5 times higher than soll without without combination cane/rockwall borders) for crops adjacent to it. Also the leaves were used as a mulch, which resulted in better sweet potato crops. Leaves were striped from the canes as soon as they began to decline or yellow. They were not allowed to die and dry out first. Hawaiians also used rows of cane as a nutrient trap to capture minerals and nutrient being leached by heavy rains. Cane's nitrogen fixation ability may have come into play when cane was reincorporated back into the soils. Striped leaves had the nitrogen fixating bacteria which became activated when the still green leaves were used as a mulch. The bacteria starts processing the carbon in the leaf, fixing atmospheric nitrogen. Thus the cane provided nitrogen to the soil, equivalent to 1/3 the nitrogen value of common commercial garden fertilizers of today. (Not sure exactly what that 1/3 actually means or represents.) But modern use has shown green cane leaves being used as a decomposing mulch is an excellent slow release source of nitrogen. 
...Variety "Honua lu'a" - darker flesh, smoky taste. Hairless. Colorful reddish to leaves and sheath, was important for Hawaiian ceremonies. 
...Variety "Wai kea pele" (the smoke of pele) white flesh. Sweet and tasty. Vigorous grower. Very hairy! Need skin protection to work with it due to hairs. 
...Variety "hala li'i" - grown on Ni'ihau but also throughout the state. Not hairy. 
...Variety "honomolino" - Hawaiian type with the most pronounced oracle of all the Hawaiian varieties. Oracle is found on only one side of the leaf sheath. 
...Variety "ula'ula"- very sweet Hawaiian type. Soft flesh. Is susceptible to pests and disease. Dark flesh. Very desirable for fresh eating. 
...Most Hawaiian varieties are erect or semi erect, but lauloa is a recombent. 

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