River cane’s importance is no secret. For thousands of years, it’s been used to make baskets, mats, even blowguns – by the Cherokee and many other tribes of the Southeast. But with the arrival of European settlers, the stands of river cane that supplied that material started to vanish, pushed out by farm fields and development.
Today, it’s rare to find a dense patch of cane (a canebrake) covering acres and acres of land. That’s bad news for artisans, but also for streams – because as it turns out, river cane is just about the best plant for stream health there is.
The biggest threat to western North Carolina’s streams is erosion. Heavy rains wash sediment down from the mountainsides and choke streams and rivers with mud, imperiling everything from fish to invertebrates. But when a river is fringed with a river cane stand, it puts the brakes on that process – slowing that runoff to a stand-still and combing its sediment load out.
Canebrakes also hold onto their own soil, stabilizing river banks and protecting fields. A single stand of river cane may be all one plant, growing from a massive network of underground stems. These form a lattice that anchors the soil in place, and their roots may stretch four feet deep, holding the banks together.
Any kind of bank vegetation is good for a stream – stabilizing soil, filtering runoff, and shading the water – and stream restoration projects always include planting trees, shrubs, and other plants along the water’s edge. But river cane is the best of the best. In our region, nothing does a better job of protecting streams and rivers.
Unfortunately, river cane is extremely difficult to grow from either cuttings or seeds. But a number of facilities – including our Horticulture department – are working to see if they can improve river cane propagation methods, in the hopes of being able to use it for restoration projects in the future.