Skip Navigation

Native Bamboos - Culturally Significant Plants for Conserving Natural Resources

Portions of North America were once covered by native bamboo species.  Bamboo species have culturally significant uses for Native American Tribes in the Southeast and have the potential to address multiple resource concerns such as soil erosion, poor water quality, and inadequate wildlife habitat.  The NRCS Jimmy Carter Plant Materials Center (PMC) in Americus, Georgia, and the Brooksville PMC, Brooksville, Florida, have recently published Plant Materials Technical Note 4:  Giant Cane and Other Native Bamboos: Establishment and Use for Conservation of Natural Resources in the Southeast

Giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea) has also been called cane, rivercane, swampcane, switchcane, and wild bamboo. Other significant bamboos include switch cane (Arundinaria tecta) and hill cane (Arundinaria appalachiana).  They were previously considered subspecies of giant cane and much of the historical information does not distinguish between them.

Historically, cane occurred across 22 states, ranging from New Jersey, south to central Florida, west to southern Missouri and south through eastern Oklahoma and Texas. Giant cane grows in slightly acidic soils ranging from sands to loams, but grows best in loose, well-drained alluvial soils found in floodplains. Switch cane is restricted to non-alluvial swamps, moist pine barrens, and other communities of the Coastal Plain region of the southeastern U.S. but overlaps the range of giant cane in the western Coastal Plain region. 

In its native environment, giant cane forms thickets called canebrakes in floodplain areas.Prior to European colonization, both giant cane and switch cane occurred in dense, massive stands, called canebrakes. These canebrakes covered many acres of the southeastern U.S., mainly in the floodplains of rivers and streams. Both species hold great historical significance to Native American tribes in the area of their occurrence. Their ancestors used the canes for a myriad of uses, including crafting weapons and tools, building structures, weaving mats, and baskets, as well as a source of food.

These vast canebrakes have been lost due to conversion of these lands to agriculture, overgrazing by livestock, and changes in fire regimes, with only a tiny fraction of canebrake acreage still existing in the Southeast and most populations are small and isolated. Because of its ecological and ethnobotanical importance, there has been a great interest in reestablishing cane in the southeastern United States.  The Golden Meadow PMC, Galliano, Louisiana, and the Jamie L. Whitten PMC, Coffeeville, Mississippi, have worked with giant canes in cooperation with the Chitimacha and Choctaw Tribes to increase cane populations. 

The new Plant Materials Program technical note provides comprehensive information on locating appropriate plantings sites and establishing and managing these canebrake species to address natural resource concerns in the Southeastern United States.

For additional information on specific species of plants mentioned, please see the USDA PLANTS database.  Technical information and guidance regarding culturally significant plants is available on the Plant Materials Program website or contact the nearest Plant Materials Center or plant materials specialist