Canebrakes: Missouri's Bamboo Forests

By A.J. Hendershott | October 2, 2002
From Missouri Conservationist: Oct 2002

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 nothing compared to the large stands that once were common in our region.

Cane Ecology

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 on cane-dwelling insects. Today, the Bachman's warbler is considered extinct.

Human Uses of Cane

Cane is valuable to people, too. After all, who hasn't fished with a cane pole?

Aboriginal American fishermen used cane to make spears and traps. Spears, with three to four prongs for stabbing fish, were used in shallow areas or near weir dams, which were partially made of cane and tree saplings. Fish traps, much like our modern minnow traps, were as often fashioned of cane as any other material.

Cane was also vital to hunting. Before bows and arrows were developed, aboriginal Americans used the atl-atl and its spears. An atl-atl is a device that increased the velocity of a thrown spear. Six-foot sections of cane were straightened with heat, fletched with feathers and attached to a foreshaft. The foreshaft was a hardwood shaft bound to a flint point. The cane shaft was stiff, but flexible enough to spring from the atl-atl. As long as each end was tightly wrapped with sinew, the ends would not split on impact. Atl-atl spears were highly effective hunting tools that were used for centuries until they were all but replaced by the bow and arrow.

Cane made its mark in archery, too. Many tribes crafted highly effective cane arrows. Some of those were used against Hernando De Soto's conquistadors. While in the southern part of North America, De Soto's men suffered 760 arrow wounds despite wearing armor and chain mail. One of De Soto's soldiers recorded the following observations in his journal:

"...the arrows are made of a certain cane, like reeds, very heavy, and so stiff that one of them when sharpened, will pass through a target. Some are pointed with a bone of a fish, sharp like a chisel, others with some stone like a point of diamond; of such the great number, when they strike upon the armor, break at the place where the parts are put together; those of cane will split, and will enter a shirt of mail doing more injury than when armed."

Most southern tribes, including the Osage and Quapaw, used cane arrows for hunting all manner of large game animals.

Small game were subject to cane projectiles too, but not in the form of arrows or spears. Indians crafted blowguns and blowgun darts from river cane. Sticks with burning ends and chert-tipped drills were used to hollow out the nodes to forge a blowgun. Heat was used to straighten the blow gun so it could deliver a dart accurately to a target.

Darts consisted of either hickory splints or a large section of cane split along its length and sanded to perfection. The ends were fletched with milkweed fluff and tipped with a small flint point. Today, these are known as bird points. Blowgun darts were used to kill rabbits, squirrels, grouse and other small game animals.

Cane had domestic functions, too. Huts made by Mississippian mound builders were framed with large log poles. Between those poles they strung a woven mat made of cane that was split lengthwise and coated the mat with a mud and-grass mixture. This process was called wattle and daub; cane was the wattle and mud, the daub. Archaeologists who find bits of daub can see the impressions of split cane, long since rotted or burned away.

Smaller diameter cane, known as switch cane (Arundinaria gigantea tecta), was often woven into mats for sleeping or as flooring. Switch cane grows to a height of four or five feet and has a diameter of about one-half inch. Splitting and soaking make the pieces pliable for woven cane seats and baskets. The Cherokee tribe is well known for its finely crafted cane baskets decorated with walnut stain.

Indians also used a bow and cane drill with sand to drill holes in rocks and to make atl-atl weights and other useful tools. The spinning cane and sand particles performed like a high speed grinding wheel to drill smooth, perfect holes.

Cane sometimes worked as the drill chuck to hold thin flint chips that could drill tiny holes.

The Natchez Indians used carefully shaped and heat-treated cane knives for removing body hair and cutting vegetables. Great Plains tribes, such as the Mandan, also made cane knives and scrapers. Because the Mandan did not live near natural patches of cane, they are thought to have procured it by trade.

Cane was also used to make flutes, pipes, decorations, games and ceremonial bonfires. Flutes were drilled with flint tips.

Cane also provided food. Tender new shoots made good stew additives or garnished salads. Tribal women watched for the infrequent flowering of cane and gathered the seeds for cooking in summer. Cane leaves also attracted elk, deer and, especially, bison, making a canebrake a great hunting spot.

Today, we use cane to reduce erosion, camouflage duck blinds and fashion cane poles, its uses are diminished in the face of more modern materials, but its versatility is indisputable.

If you have a cane patch on your property, consider allowing it to survive or encourage its spread. Protecting and conserving cane is very important for wildlife and can control soil erosion. Cane roots and rhizomes can be transplanted with relative success. You may consider planting cane near a creek or bottomland field or plant it for ornamental purposes.

Be aware of cane's ability to spread underground. Sinking landscape timbers around yard plantings can provide an underground barrier. Cane is important to wildlife, a part of our heritage, and something we all should consider conserving.

Cane Cutting Tips

  • Ask permission before cutting or digging on private land.
  • Do not over cut a patch. Leave some for wildlife and for your future use.
  • Digging and cutting river cane on public land, managed by MDC, is not allowed.
  • Growing river cane
  • Cane can be grown as an ornamental in southern Missouri. Freezing limits northern planting.
  • It is green all year.
  • This bamboo can be aggressive, so be prepared to limit underground runners with a barrier or trimming. Eating the new shoots is a great option for control.
  • Dig rhizomes for transplant. Use caution as dug rhizomes dry out quickly.
  • Plant in rich soils with full to partial sun.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Bertha Bainer