Mention the word bamboo and most people in the Western world naturally think of panda bears, China and steamy exotic jungles. In fact, the majority of the 1,450 species of bamboo in the world do originate in countries located in South and Southeastern Asia, with a few scattered species in Saharan Africa and the very farthest regions of South America. In these places, native bamboo species can grow as dense as the thickest forest you can imagine and produce giant canes as big around as small trees, while others are as diminutive and slender as a clump of our native Big Bluestem. In fact, bamboo is actually a grass belonging to the Poaceae or True Grass family. With over 10,000 recognized species, true grasses represent the fifth largest plant family on earth. Knowing this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find out that the United States has three very distinct native species of bamboo, known collectively as river cane.
When the first Europeans set out to explore the New World, they encountered massive canebrakes so dense as to be nearly impenetrable. These natural obstacles had to be navigated around, sometimes for miles on end. The largest canebrakes were found along most of the larger rivers and streams, as well as the low-lying flood plains at their margins. Once a nuisance to explorers and settlers alike, river cane was quickly identified as a nutritious source of food for livestock and canebrakes as fertile farm land in the making.
No doubt these realizations came with the help of the indigenous peoples of the region, who had used river cane and canebrakes for thousands of years. To the locals, the young tender shoots – high in calcium, protein and phosphorus – were an important source of abundant and nutritious food. They also took advantage of the rich soils that river cane prefers, often clearing small areas along the edges for use in crop production. But unlike their European counterparts, native people took great care in nurturing and protecting the canebrakes because they supported a wide array of bird and animal species that were often hunted for food.
As in all early indigenous cultures, plants served many roles within the society. River cane was not only a subsistence crop, but a source of strong, straight and sturdy “wood” used to construct a dizzying array of tools, weapons, basketry, traps, cages, footwear, bedding and even lodging. Even today, the finest examples of hand-woven basketry came from the Cherokee people, who used split river cane and natural dyes to make some of the most stunning works of functional art the world has ever known. Called talu-tsa by the Cherokee, these baskets were so tightly woven that they would prevent the contents from getting wet during a heavy rain. Kept in The British Museum, the basket below is one of the earliest known historic examples of this fine craft.
Unfortunately, like so many of the abundant natural resources found in the New World, early settlers quickly decimated river cane through over-grazing and farming. That was the beginning of the end of the once massive canebrakes and today, native bamboo occupies less than 2% of its native habitat.
The loss of this habitat has raised concern for the future of many life forms that rely on the habitat created by canebrakes. A 2002 article written by A.J. Hendershott for the Missouri Conservationist Magazine, succinctly describes the ecology of canebrakes:
Cane thickets make great wildlife cover. Indigo buntings, cardinals, hooded warblers, evening grosbeaks, water thrushes and other songbirds use it for refuge from predators. Golden mice, southeastern shrews and other small mammals hide in cane stands, too. Swamp rabbits use canebrakes for cover and food, hence their nickname: canecutters.
At least five species of butterflies – yehl skipper, creole pearly-eye, southern pearly-eye, lace winged roadside skipper and Carolina roadside skipper – need cane for their caterpillar stage. The cane they eat helps fuel their metamorphosis into butterflies. Five newly identified species of moths are known to feed exclusively on cane.
Insects are not the only animals that depend on cane. Swainson’s warblers and Bachman’s warblers need it to survive. Swainson’s warblers migrate to southeast Missouri every spring to nest in our cane stands. They breed and raise their young in cane, and even make their nests from cane leaves. These warblers are now state endangered, partly due to the lack of canebrakes.
Bachman’s warblers were even more dependent on cane. Some biologists think that this species could only feed oncane-dwelling insects. Today, the Bachman’s warbler is considered extinct.
Needless to say, conservationists have long-advocated the restoration of native bamboo species in the U.S., but it isn’t just for the birds. River cane also helps improve water quality in rivers and streams by controlling erosion and stabilizing embankments. It also helps prevent preventing sediment generated through deforestation, road-building and farming from choking gravelly river beds that fish and other native aquatic species need to survive.
The movement to restore native bamboo species has also brought about a new discovery. In 2007, a new species of native bamboo was identified in the Appalachian Mountains. Appropriately named Arundinaria appalachiana, Hill Cane joined River Cane (Arundinaria gigantea) and Switch Cane (Arundanaria tecta) as the only three native bamboo species in the Continental United States.
Next week, learn more about the three species of native bamboo, including ways in which native bamboo is being used in restoration projects here in Missouri and how you can add this delightful and useful plant to your landscape.
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Jill’s books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons are available in our BOOKSTORE.