Friday, 21 October 2011

Sugar Cane: and time to strip it

"Strip the sugar cane?" I hear you say, in tones of wonderment.

Yes, Strip the Sugar Cane. No, it's not a strange folk dance, it's an annual ritual that I go through in my back garden, round about this time of year.

Along my back fence I have a stand of Miscanthus sacchariflorus, or Sugar Cane. It's a tall, lovely grass, with slender canes - a bit like bamboo, which it does somewhat resemble - and long leaves which rustle fabulously in the wind.

Every year it has an annual stripping, where I peel off the old, dead leaves to reveal the bare stems, or culms, which then turn bright red over the course of a week or two. This leaves me with beautiful elegant red stems over the winter, until such time as I chop them all down to nothing in March, ready for the next year's stems to start growing.

Here's what it looked like when I started:

Yes, a tangled mess.

You can see that each long, slender leaf wraps itself around the culm, then leans away to become the leaf.

All I have to do it take each leaf in turn and carefully strip it away from the culm.

"All I have to do", excuse me while I laugh hollowly - forgot to mention that the edges of the leaves are quite sharp, so I have to be a bit careful how I handle them.

And no, I can't do it in gloves, as the leaves need to be separated from the culms, and I have found over the years that a thumbnail is just exactly the right tool for the job. So I do it in bare hands, and put up with the occasional slash.

Actually, it's quite a fun job to do, as you can really see how much progress you are making.

And here is the result.

Can you see the difference? All that tangle of dead stuff has gone, and the culms are now revealed, in their green splendidness.

Best of all, I know that in a couple of weeks - especially if we get some frost next week as has been forecast - they will turn bright red, which always makes a nice contrast with the blue of the trellis beyond.

I'll try to remember to take another photo in a couple of weeks' time, to show you how nice they look.

There are still a lot of leaves left, so I still get the rustling when the wind blows: and over the next few weeks I will pop out there and strip off more leaves as they start to die off.

This means that I will have a period of several weeks where the stems are partly bright red and partly green, which is very enjoyable.

Updated insert: I still haven't taken a photo of them going bright red, but here's a pic from a different winter:

This photo - right - was taken about a week after I stripped off the leaves,  in late September of that year, and the stems have gone dark purple, which is quite dramatic.


Eventually they reach a point where all the leaves are gone, and all I have are the stems, bright red (or purple!) but with no tops. I generally leave them in place over the winter, as the colour remains good, and they do provide some level of screening.

Then, once the stems have faded to golden brown, I cut the whole lot to ground level, which gives me a crop of lightweight garden canes. Interestingly, this plant is now being grown commercially as a biofuel.

So there you have it - Strip the Sugar Cane! Oh, and no, in this country, they don't make sugar... sadly!


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