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Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane

Saccharum officinarum, v.Purple Ribbon

Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane was the predominant crop cane for refined sugar and cane syrup in the United States from 1820 to 1910, supplanting the Creole Cane and the Otaheite Cane that had been patch grown in Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia prior to 1814.  In general configuration, Purple Ribbon conforms with the majority of the major species of perennial true grasses used for sugar refining.  Its jointed stalk is very thick and fibrous standing somewhat beneath six meters tall.  The stalk is filled with juice high in starch and plant sugar.  The sugarcane belongs in the same family as other important seed plants like maize, wheat, rice, and sorghum.

Purple Ribbon Sugar CaneThe Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane is native to Java and other areas of India.  Dutch traders carried it to the West Indies in the early 1800s, and in the United States, the King family brought it to Darien, Georgia, in 1814.  The cane grew well, and Mr. King began the manufacture of sugar.  Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane quickly expanded throughout the southeastern United States.  In 1825, both Red and Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane became more dominant in the sugar market, especially in Louisiana.  Though the Purple Ribbon variety was not as tasty as its tropical cousin--the very dark purple, Jamaican Black Ribbon sugar cane of Florida--the purple ribbon sugar cane made Louisiana farmers a fortune due to it being resilient and easily grown in the US.

In the early 1900s, disease swept the sugar cane fields of the United States, and most of the sugar industry was wiped out.  Later, when the United States government wanted to restart the sugar cane industry, it started to make hybrid cane, with the goal of creating a sugar cane that would be less susceptible to disease.  The hardy purple ribbon sugar cane was one of the several varieties used to create the hybrids.

These descendent canes supplanted purple ribbon in the fields of the deep South.  It remained only in the yard patches of cane syrup enthusiasts.  By the end of the 20th century, the lack of breeding discipline meant that it was uncertain whether true Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane survived anywhere.  Several producers in Florida claim to grow it, but the plants they display vary markedly in height and coloration.

Farmer Terry Mercer next to towering Purple Ribbon Sugar CaneHence, in 2014, Dr. Steve Kresovich, Coker Chair of Genetics at Clemson University, and graduate student Bradley Ruah collected the 22 descendent canes to refocus the genetics and back breed the original.  Their aim is to supply the cane to the residents of Sapelo Island, Georgia, the first large-scale center of sugar production in the South.  Dr. Kresovich and Mr. Ruah are relying on herbarium specimens of 19th century purple ribbon cane for the genetic template of their breeding efforts.

There are others involved too in the movement to cultivate the purple ribbon sugar cane on the island of Sapelo Island, Georgia.  The other project leaders are Dr. William Thomas of Gainesville, GA; Cornelia Bailey Walker of Sapelo Island; and Dr. David Shields of the University of South Carolina.  They planted the revived crop in the spring of 2015.  Plant security plots, provided by Dr. Shields, will be maintained at Clemson University.  These exciting initiatives are strong steps forward in the effort to bring the Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane back to its former glory.

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