A while ago a gentleman visited me and asked me about useful swamp plants. I realized that I hadn’t given this ecosystem much ink. I’ve written about cattails and alligator weed some time ago, but not much recently.
We have two common native species of wetland canes that inhabit our shaded swampy areas. River cane (Arundinaria gigantea) and switch cane (Arundinaria tecta) form thickets called canebrakes. Virtually indistinguishable by the novice except by size, these two lowland species form an important component of the wetland ecosystem.
Both types have greenish stems, but river canes can grow taller than 25 feet, though they usually are not more than half that. Canes are useful for baskets, fishing poles and plant stakes. With a little imagination, numerous crafts can be constructed from them.
They make great homemade tent frames. Just stick both ends of several in the ground and you can easily construct your own tent from a tarp or piece of plastic. Switch canes are rarely taller than six feet and are too small to be of use for more than basket weaving.
Both species reproduce mainly by underground stems called rhizomes. Plants rarely produce seed. This probably contributes to why their range and frequency are shrinking. Years ago large expanses of canes were far more common. Native Americans had numerous uses for them, including arrow shafts, spears, blow guns, torches and musical instruments, but they have been cleared over the years to increase farmland and cut down on mosquito problems.
Individual stems survive less than 10 years, but plants sprout profusely from their bases and from rhizomes. Canebrakes benefit from fire, which limits competition from other wetland species. Fire also stimulates sprouting of new shoots.
Tender shoots and leaves are quite palatable to grazing animals. However, overgrazing from livestock and wildlife can thin them out drastically. Large populations of feral pigs can uproot rhizomes and destroy whole stands of them.
Shrinking canebrake ecosystems mean less filtering of pollutants, particularly fertilizer runoff. Too many nutrients in surface water mean less light penetration and ultimately less dissolved oxygen for aquatic life. Erosion is a greater problem around streams when canes vanish. Sedimentation slows water movement, increasing the scope of flooding. Nesting birds also face greater losses from predators.
Exotic bamboo species also threaten river and switch canes. Golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) is highly invasive and can overgrow the native types. It has been used as an ornamental, but it often escapes captivity. This type can get huge.
Wildlife rely on the native canes for food and cover. Many species of butterflies do too. I like young shoots in stir fry. They can be sautéed in the young tender stage just like the commercial bamboo shoots. Quality is similar. You can also chew on the stems and suck the juice out. It tastes like raw sweet corn.
These native bamboos are high in potassium and antioxidants. They’re not calorie dense, which is a plus for dieters. It’s probably a minus for survivalists although the other uses for these native canes make up for it.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.