Sunday, January 4, 2015

black sugarcane, Saccharum officinarum var. purpureum

 Gomphrena 'Fireworks' flowering in front of black sugarcane
Saccharum officinarum var. purpureum (Poaceae)
The distinctive black stems and purple foliage of this ornamental and edible sugarcane make it an attractive addition to the summer garden particularly if planted alongside the large variegated Miscanthus 'Cosmopolitan' or some burgundy leaved orange flowering Canna 'Wyoming'. By the end of summer the stems may have reached 2 metres or more as it loves the heat and constant moisture, something we are getting plenty of if this afternoon's downpour is anything to go by. Large canes can be cut during the summer and used to propagate more plants by cutting the stem into short sections which include a node and laying them horizontally with a bare covering of soil. Having a few back-up plants is handy if you live in a frosty climate as they can be kept under shelter for planting out as the weather warms up.
 Growing an ornamental sugarcane plant provides a link to a part of the agricultural history of Australia while gaining an insight into some of the characters who were pioneers in the industry. While the sugar museum in Mourilyan, Queensland has recorded the oral history of the 20th century pioneers, some of whom were interned as 'enemy aliens' during both Wars, the 19th century records make for interesting reading while second guessing the motives and actions of those involved. Certainly this is the case with the 31 year old John Buhot who, with his wife Jessie, sailed into Brisbane on board the Montmorency in April 1862. He was born and raised in Barbados at the tail end of their sugar industry which was tainted with the dark side of slavery and he probably knew more than anyone in the Colony about establishing and nurturing the fledgling sugar industry here. Two months after his arrival his expertise in making granular sugar was put to the test with the help of engineer and architect Andrew Petrie (1798-1872) Twenty four canes were selected from the patch growing at the Brisbane city 'Botanic Reserve', yielding 7 gallons of juice and 5 pounds of sugar. The crushing of the canes and clarifying of the juice was carried out on the footpath of the Brookes and Foster Ironmongers establishment at 143 Queen Street. No doubt a crowd gathered to watch this process and with much fanfare the clarified liquor was taken back to the gardens for the final process of turning it into granular crystals. For his efforts he was promised a grant of 500 acres of land by a select Parliamentary Committee consisting of Messers. S.W. Griffith, Moreton, Buzzacott and Macrossan. This promise came to nothing though he was no doubt living comfortably by 1874 in his 56 acre Dunellan Estate in what is now the Brisbane suburb of Greenslopes. On his death at age fifty in 1881 his wife reminded the government of their promise but this was dismissed. His falling out with sugar industry associates such as Louis Hope from Ormiston indicates he may have been quite quick tempered or a just a victim of a 'tall poppy' syndrome frustrated by his efforts to get people to take notice of someone born with sugar 'flowing through his veins' from a young age. A hundred years after his initial 'manufacture' experiments, a plaque was unveiled to honour his achievements at the Brisbane City Botanic Garden, with his descendants in attendance. He is also remembered by a row of fig (Ficus) trees he planted in Quay Street Rockhampton and by Buhot street in Geebung.

John Buhot (1831-1881)
Family portrait at Dunellan Estate 1870's

Suagarcane at Brisbane City Botanic Garden

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