Switch Cane

Native cane grows in moist areas

Photo by Kenneth Boone

Though you wouldn’t know it from walking in Alabama’s forests today, before European settlers arrived our state contained vast expanses of native cane.

Landscape covered in cane was so dense and impressive that it had it’s own name – canebrake – and it rivaled the vast longleaf pine stands as one of Alabama’s most distinctive ecosystems. In fact, sometimes native cane carpeted the forest floor below our pine and oak forests.

Native cane, which is a grass that looks very similar to Asian bamboos, grows in moist areas and floodplains around rivers, swamps and lakes, as well in more upland areas with high moisture.

Alabama’s native canes are Arundinaria gigantea – called giant or river cane – and its smaller subspecies Arundinaria gigantic tecta – called switch cane or arrow cane – which is pictured here. The two varieties are very hard to distinguish except by their height at maturity. They are usually considered the same species, though some scientists think the two canes should be separate species.

The common names for both varieties are appropriately descriptive. Arundinaria gigantea is both giant at up to 30 feet tall and found alongside rivers. Early explorers and settlers making their ways though Alabama on our rivers spoke of massive canebrakes on the shorelines. The smaller switch cane would be an obvious choice if making a switch or an arrow.

Switch cane is common along the shorelines of the Tallapoosa River and the creeks that flow into Lake Martin, as well as higher up in moist areas in our hills. The plant grows throughout the southeastern U.S. from Virginia or even further north to Texas. Native cane reproduces through underground rhizomes, forming a dense colony that can reach more than 150,000 shoots per acre. The cane shoots can grow extremely quickly in a prime area, up to 1-1/2 inches per day.

This perennial grass has a round, hollow stem and evergreen, lance-shaped leaves. It can flower and produce seeds, but does so rarely. The stem of native cane can be 3 inches wide or wider and can grow up to 33 feet tall, though switch cane is much smaller at 6-8 feet tall.

Native cane is a U.S. cousin to the bamboos of Asia, many which have been imported into our country, where they escaped gardens to become invasive species. Most tall bamboo now found in Alabama is the Asian variety, usually planted to use as cane poles or landscaping.

Cane has an unusual relationship with fire. It is relatively fire-resistant and benefits from occasional wildfires, which kill competing plants on the forest floor; however, cane can be destroyed by too frequent burning. The Native Americans understood this and used controlled burns to maintain and promote canebrakes, which they depended on for many products, including spears, arrows, quivers, blowguns, fish traps, canteens, containers, rafts, flutes, matting used inside houses for sleeping, lashings, building material used as framing, knives, candles, tobacco pipes and other items.

One of the most famous Native American uses of native cane is in basket weaving, an art still in practice today among the Cherokees who make beautiful, highly artistic baskets and bowls from the cane.

William Bartram, the famous naturalist and explorer, described them as “an endless wilderness of canes” and said cane he found on the Tombigbee River was “thick as a man’s arm, or three or four inches in diameter; I suppose one joint of some of them would contain above a quart of water.”

Alabama naturalist John C. Hall wrote “Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins described a 900-acre canebrake north of Montgomery that covered the entire bend of the Alabama River now traversed by I-65 from North Boulevard to the Prattville exit. General Thomas Woodward recalled that a prominent Creek warrior, Hossa Yaholo, and his family hid in that brake from General Andrew Jackson after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The canebrakes were the subject of songs, stories and tall-tales, and famed frontiersman and politician Davy Crocket was known as ‘the Canebrake Congressman.’”

European settlers used canebrakes as prime cattle grazing sites and associated canebrakes with good soil, so they often grazed down and then plowed canebrakes to convert them to cotton fields. Once an area was settled, wildfires were suppressed, which allowed other plants to thin out the cane left in the margins of the fields. Eventually, because of overgrazing and farming, the state’s huge canebrakes went the way of the passenger pigeon.

A number of animals still use native cane for shelter and food. Scientists think the decline of Bachman’s warbler may be directly related to the loss of canebrakes since the songbird made its nests there. Cane habitats are important for other warblers and are a food source for the southern pearly eye butterfly.

Some information for this article came from an article written by John C. Hall, University of West Alabama and published by the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Wikipedia and Mississippi State University’s website.