Sugarcane is perhaps best known as being the source for white sugar, but it is also a source of biofuel and syrup. The plant itself is actually a grass with a thick stem and feathered leaves, and has been grown in some parts of the world as a food crop since at least 6000 B.C. Sugarcane requires rich soils in order to thrive, and does best in a tropical or subtropical environment.
In the proper conditions, sugarcane can reach heights of up to 13 feet (4 m). Larger isn't always better, though, and soils that are too rich can produce larger canes with less sugar content. If allowed to grow long enough, feather-like plumes will sprout from the top of the cane. Usually it is harvested before blooming; if the canes are cut back to the ground, they will regrow in the next cycle. Plants are described by the thickness of the cane; thin canes are known as just that, while the more desired, higher-producing thick canes are known as noble canes.
The time it takes sugarcane to reach maturity varies between six and 24 months, depending on where it is being grown and the type of plant. In commercial settings, canes are generally cut back and allowed to regrow until they cease to become productive. When this happens, a new crop is planted. Instead of using seeds that will yield plants quite different from the parent plants, sections are taken from an adult cane and planted to begin a process called vegetative propagation. New plants develop from sections of the old, and are genetically the same as the original plants.
Originally from New Guinea, sugarcane spread first through Asia and India, then to the Mediterranean. It wasn't brought to North America until Columbus included it in his cargo, and has since remained a popular crop. Grown outdoors in areas where the temperature does not drop below freezing, it is also grown indoors in colder climates.
In addition to the traditional crystal form of sugar, it is also possible to use pieces of sugarcane to distill a sweet syrup called jaggery that can be used as a sweetener in a way similar to sugar crystals. In India, this syrup is also used in the brewing of alcohol. Pieces of the sugarcane can also be chewed just as they are harvested, and the shoots of the cane are often eaten as a vegetable dish in Asia. Sugarcane can also be used for making paper, floor waxes, and polishes, and is found in several kinds of cosmetics.