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Canebrakes: Missouri's Bamboo Forests

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

Imagine a tall and expansive stand of bamboo, 20 feet tall with shoots an inch thick. It's about 4 miles long and about 1/4-mile wide. This bamboo thicket has no trees and is a forest unto itself. It sounds like something from China, where you might find a panda bear, doesn't it? Surprisingly, lush bamboo forests this large once were common in Missouri, and remnants still exist.

These huge stands of bamboo were called canebrakes and could be found close to our streams and creeks. Canebrakes varied in size and grew in the southern half of Missouri.

Giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea) is unusual in that it is our largest grass, and it is woody. When fresh shoots pop through the ground, they are tender and very nutritious. Researchers say cane, which is rich in phosphorus, calcium and crude protein, is the most nutritious native grass forage available in the southern United States. Cattle grazing on cane show significant weight gains and are said to produce superior milk and butter.

Four hundred years ago, aboriginal tribes cultivated large agricultural fields not only in Missouri, but across the South. Cane bordered many of those fields.

During the 1500s and 1600s, Europeans began to cross the Atlantic and settle North America. They brought smallpox, the plague and other diseases to which native people had no immunity. Epidemics spread rapidly and wiped out villages within a few years. Cane overtook untended fields, creating enormous canebrakes. Animals that used cane flourished like never before. Settlers that arrived later, in the early 1800s, encountered these giant canebrakes.

Canebrakes were not only good places for limited livestock grazing, but were tall enough to protect animals from wind, rain, snow and ice. Many settlers used canebrakes to pasture horses, cows, and sheep.

Settlers also noticed that cane grew in excellent soil. Cane was easier to clear than trees, and the brakes were great locations for farm fields. Thus, many farm fields, established by natives 200 to 400 years earlier, were once again cleared for crops.

Clearing, combined with overgrazing, spelled the decline of canebrakes. Where it was left to stand, it was grazed down faster than it could grow back. After a canebrake was no longer useful for grazing, it was cleared for farm land.

Cane still grows in bottomland field edges and in scattered locations along streams and creeks. Small patches of cane still remain, but they are

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