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Common Name(s): Sweet Reed
Description: Sweet reed is a marsh plant with tall bamboo-like stalks, growing in vast stands that can stretch for acres. Stalks are jointed, with 5-9 sections per stalk, typically between 1/4 and 1 1/2 inches wide and 4-7 feet high. Stalks tend to get bigger in the South than in the North. Most stalks are plain green; some are spotted or banded while others are bluish, dark purple, or golden in tone. The roots form a dense, fibrous mat just under the surface of the mud.
Habitat: This plant requires marshy conditions. It can tolerate more salt than cattails, so it grows closer to the coasts, but it will grow in other places too. It is a common wetland plant in the North, also found in the cooler parts of the South. However, warm weather makes it more disease-prone; that can boost the sugar production but also kills the plants, so sweet reed is rarer and harder to grow the warmer the conditions are.
Pests: A key attraction of sweet reed is actually one of its pests. It is prone to a disease that causes hyperproduction of sugar. The sugar crystallizes inside the tough, hollow stalks. Each section yields between 1/4 and 1/3 cup of crystals; stalks usually have 5-9 sections. In a typical year, about 1% of stalks will be filled with large sugar crystals similar to raw cane sugar. In years with a more severe outbreak, it may go up to 5%, or even more in warm regions. Infected stalks tend to turn a pale yellowish green, which helps to locate them, but some stalks are naturally this color and others may turn for unrelated reasons.
Bears, wild boars, and other animals that like sweets will sometimes venture into a patch of reeds in search of the sweet ones. Wasps, bees, and flies may follow them and glean spilled sugar crystals from the broken stalks. There are also species of small bees and wasps that drill into the stalks and nest there.
Propagation: Both vegetative and sexual propagation modes exist. Usually sweet reed spreads by expanding its mat of fibrous roots. However, sometimes a severe outbreak of disease causes the reed bed to flower and then die. Tall plumes emerge, each bearing hundreds of tiny yellow flowers. Wind and small insects carry the pollen. The seeds resemble small splinters, like grass seeds; they are spread by the wind, slow-moving water, and occasionally animals. Most simply fall to the ground near the dead parent plants and sprout there. Flowering happens rarely, with about 5-10 years between outbreaks.
Northerners simply gather sweet reed from the vast natural stands. Southerners farm it in the parts of the Empire where it will grow, but it is a nuisance to cultivate since much land must be devoted to a crop that yields only a tiny percentage of sugar-bearing stalks.
Use: Sweet reed has various uses. The most important is as a food source. Searching for infected reeds is a popular late-summer activity, time-consuming but very rewarding. The sugar may be removed from the reeds and purified, but it stores better when left inside intact sections -- almost a year. Each stalk bears 1-2 cups of sugar crystals. Although few stalks bear sugar, this plant grows in massive stands, so a diligent gatherer may find several pounds of sugar in a day. The best gathering time is about a month during mid-to-late summer.
Northerners go out to the wild reed beds in large groups, combining domestics with several hunters in case of contact with bears or other animals interested in the sugar. The raw sugar obtained from the reeds is a dry tan-colored substance with large crystals, similar to demerara sugar.
Southerners harvest their crops by draining the field for a few days, then sending out crews of workers. They prefer to refine their sugar, either slightly (yielding a slightly moist, pale golden substance similar to turbinado sugar) or thoroughly (yielding a dry, white substance similar to table sugar).
Empty canes are also gathered at this time and set aside to dry. Green stalks may be used for utilitarian purposes, much like the smaller species of bamboo. Stalks with attractive patterns or unusual colors are much prized by crafters for making more decorative items. The woody stalks can be made into such things as dippers, musical instruments, pipes, containers, eating utensils, chair legs, tripods, racks, etc.
Lore: Sweet reed is widely considered a lovers' plant. In the North, it symbolizes diligence, because only a persistent and observant gatherer will be rewarded with sugar -- while a thoughtful and hardworking crafter can find the treasure in what seems to be an ordinary stalk. In the South, it has a less positive connotation of playing "hard-to-get" and deceiving a lover.
Because the sweet reed has a narrow "peak season" and sugar has a high food value, the resulting sugars are special and expensive. There is enough to go around, but people have to be careful with it if they want their supply to last. In the North, it won't keep quite a whole year, and usually runs out a month or two before the fresh supply ripens. In the South, of course, people can use time-crystals to preserve it, but that makes it even more expensive. Small boxes or tubes (in the North) or glass dishes (in the South) of sugar are therefore popular gifts between lovers. These are often decorated with dark green reeds in which one or two golden ones appear.
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