Today’s photographs are courtesy of two contributors. Eric Hunt, aka Eric in SF@Flickr shared the first image, and he has a number of additional images here: Saccharum officinarum). 3Point141@Flickr contributed the second image. Thanks to both of you for helping with the Botany and Spirits series!
Saccharum officinarum is a cultigen, a taxon of cultivated origin. Other examples of cultigens previously featured on BPotD include rice and cassava. One of the commercial sugar canes, Saccharum officinarum was hybridized over millenia, with origins in (likely) New Guinea. Many cultivars exist and continue to be bred, in order to improve properties such as disease resistance and sugar production.
Additional reading on the history and use of sugar cane (or noble cane) is available via the Ethnobotanical Leaflets of Southern Illinois University: “Sugar Cane: Past and Present” or James A. Duke’s Handbook of Energy Crops: Saccharum officinarum.
In addition to being the largest source for sugar production, sugar cane is used in the production of the distilled alcoholic beverages rum and cachaça. Unlike yesterday’s Juniperus communis, where the contribution to gin was flavouring, rum and cachaça are derived from fermented and distilled sugar cane liquids. Cachaça, the most popular spirit in Brazil (1.5 billion litres annual consumption), is made from fresh sugarcane juice that is fermented and distilled. Rum is a bit more complex, in that it can either be derived in a similar manner to cachaça or, more typically, produced from molasses (a byproduct of sugar production from the canes).
Given that sugar cane has been cultivated for millenia, it is likely no surprise that fermented drinks from sugar cane also date back to antiquity. However, distillation of the fermented liquids to produce the true rums only occurred in the 17th century, on sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean. Wikipedia again has an excellent entry (it seems like Wikipedia writers like alcohol) on rum, including suggestions on the origin of the name as well as a history of rum (did you know that Rhode Island rum was considered an accepted currency in Europe for a short period of time?).