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Saccharum officinarum: Sweet grass

Sugar cane is a very ancient agricultural commodity of great economic importance. It originated in the highlands of New Guinea, a large island north of Australia. The forerunner of our modern sugar cane was created by selectively crossing wild species of cane with especially high sugar content.

Sugar cane made its way from New Guinea to Hawaii in prehistoric times, as well as to China and India. Europeans first learned of sugar cane through the conquests of Alexander the Great. One of his generals, Nearchus, reported in 327 B.C. that there were people in India who could create honey from a reed-like plant – without even using bees!

Some 400 years later, in the first century A.D., the Arabs brought sugar cane to the Iberian Peninsula. After the discovery of the New World, it was introduced to the Caribbean and to Brazil, where it is still an important crop today.

In Europe, sugar was for centuries a luxury good, sold by the gram in apothecaries’ shops. The importance of sugar cane only began to decline in the 19th century with the discovery of how to refine sugar from sugar beets. However, sugar cane is still the source of more than 80 percent of the world’s sugar.

In recent years, humans have found new uses for sugar cane. In Brazil, the sugary juice is fermented and distilled into ethanol and used to replace gasoline in automobiles. Ethanol production is controversial in some quarters, as huge tracts of land are needed for the vast plantations that provide the sugar cane. Environmentalists fear that pristine rain forests will be cut down to make space. Also, not all byproducts of ethanol production can be put to practical use, and some end up causing water pollution. Clearly, renewable resources aren’t a magic solution to the energy crisis.

Audio file download
Saccharum officinarum: Sweet grass (MP3, 846 KB)

Audio production and copyright: Soundgarden Audioguidance GmbH
Text: Ehrentraud Bayer, Botanischer Garten München-Nymphenburg

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