by David Rogers
CANEBRAKES – stands of our American native bamboo species, have enjoyed a long history on our North American continent. The River Cane was utilized by Native Americans in their construction of weather-proof wattle and daub housing, basketry, floor mats, arrow shafts, blowguns, minnow traps, flutes, torches, and more spanning a period of over 6,000 years.
Cattle and horses once grew fat on its abundant and nutritious foliage before it was overgrazed. Vast thickets and prairies of the species once grew from Texas to Maryland. Such growth provided natural camouflaging blinds to hunters and cover for wildlife across this region.
This plant that favored growing on elevated river banks of fertile soil also provided fresh, cut on site culms for fishing poles to fishermen looking to feed their families or those who simply wanted to enjoy a lazy day.
Canebrakes have even been made mention in country and blues music. It was Tennessee Ernie Ford in his song ‘Sixteen Tons’, who said, “I was raised in the canebrake by an ol’ mama lion”, to assert his resistance to being easily tamed into a domestic lifestyle.
This native bamboo has unjustly, in our opinion, been labeled by some as “ugly” or “unsightly” in contrast to more visually striking or aesthetic exotic species. Let’s not forget the historical role it played in our land.
It was unfortunately eradicated during forgotten bygone decades in most of its former range when our lands were cleared for farming and residential development. It once grew in vast thickets, or canebrakes, that stretch for miles in some areas. It now occupies less than 2% of its former range.
Along with the eradication of the canebrake came the extinction of animals that depended on this unique ecosystem. The Bachman’s warbler is now believed to be extinct.
With the new interest many have taken in ecological reconstruction, it’s our hope that our native Arundinaria species can be reintroduced into portions of its former range. We promote the planting of our native species when planting bamboo in more wild areas outside of landscaping applications so that non-native, exotic species don’t displace other native plant species.
We offer the hardier of the ecotypes, Arundinaria gigantea ‘Macon’, from Macon County located in Tennessee. In the accompanying photo we can see what a great hunting blind is provided by the Macon River Cane. This super cold hardy ecotype has survived temperatures lower than -20ºF.
In all of the years we’ve grown it, it has only top-killed once. That was during the winter of 2018/2019 when an actual air temperature of -20ºF was turned into more severe conditions by accompanying 40mph winds. It fully recovered in the spring.
Grow this species in full sun to part shade in well drained to moist soils, but never in a site that remains soggy for periods longer than a few days at a time after rains.