Sugar cane, a sweet crop that’s easy to grow
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When Rey Koo and Robby Whitelaw were starting up their sugar cane juice business in Hollywood five years ago, they were worried that they wouldn’t find a large enough supply of the long, green canes for their juice crusher. Fresh raw cane juice is the basis for many of the drinks they sell at farmers markets and Raw Cane SuperJuice, their juice bar.
“We discovered there are a lot of people who grow this — not as a cash crop but for a wind guard or for cultural or ritual reasons,” Koo says. “If you take the [Metro] Blue Line to Long Beach, from the train you’ll see a lot of homes with sugar cane growing in the backyard.”
She’s adept at spotting the distinctive, feathery plumage of sugar cane. Born in Taiwan and raised in San Jose, Koo remembers childhood holidays marked with treats of chewable sugar cane, fresh from the Central Valley. Sugar cane would be on the altars for Chinese New Year and Day of the Dead.
Whitelaw is a native of KwaZulu-Natal province, the so-called sugar cane coast of South Africa.
In 2007, the two started producing sugar cane juice for natural foods stores. They found a network of growers, mostly Hmong in Fresno and Vietnamese in San Diego. The best plants for crushing out juice are straight, with long sections between the nodes. Different hybrids have different tastes.
“We look for a minimal dense juice, a dark color with a finish that is a little bitter and very grassy,” Koo says.
When she gets her stalks from her grower, she adds, all the buds — the embryonic shoots at the nodes — have been cut out.
Sugar cane is easy to grow and propagate, a highly efficient plant with an extensive root system. It can be grown as a windbreak, as Koo suggests, along perimeters of gardens. When young, sugar cane can be inter-planted with veggies.
At the Growing Experience in Carmelitos, gardeners raise juice varieties and chewing varieties of sugar cane for the group’s community supported agriculture boxes. Although sugar cane grows best in humid conditions, it can be drought tolerant and requires little care. “It’s not hard to control, but you have to harvest every year,” garden master Manuel Cisneros says.
Hands must be well protected because the leaves can slice the skin. “Like paper cuts, only maybe three to five times sharper,” he says with a laugh.
If left unchecked, sugar cane, like certain types of bamboo, can get away from you. At some community gardens, sugar cane is on the prohibited list — flora non grata.
Ken Jennings of Worldwide Exotics in Lake View Terrace stocks Pele’s Smoke, an ornamental perennial with green-red stalks; when the feather emerges, it’s paper white. The canes are sweet, but that’s not the purpose. The variety is more attractive than other sugar canes. “But you can’t ignore them,’ Jennings says. ‘Then they get ugly.”
-- Jeff Spurrier
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Rey Koo uses sugar cane to make drinks sold at the Hollywood Farmers Market.
Leonidas Quesava tries a sugar cane drink at the farmers market while his dad, Thaddeus Quesava, awaits the verdict.
Dried stalks of sugar cane are sold for good luck in L.A.’s Chinatown.
Fresh stalks, peeled and ready to chew.