GETTING DOWN TO THE ROOTS OF RIVER CANE- BY MICHAEL GAIGE
Cane has an interesting history. It is one of two species of bamboo, a type of grass, native to North America. Preferring full sun and disturbance, river cane was formerly most common on floodplains where it occurred beneath open forest canopies. Cane also occurred under canopy openings in upland forests and in scattered-tree savannas. Such sites and soils have been coveted by humans for various purposes for centuries.
Native Americans were first to use sites suitable to cane as well as the plant itself. They farmed bottomlands, and, after the soils were exhausted, the abandoned sites often grew back as cane.
As a grass, cane responds well to burning — the bulk of the plant’s biomass lies in its root system, so a fire merely burns off the culms, allowing the root stalk to quickly regenerate.
The plant was common on the landscape when European explorers and settlers entered the region in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This is because, as Europeans settled areas farther east, they introduced diseases such as smallpox into the Native American population.
With no immunity, Native American populations were reduced by some 95 percent, effectively eradicating them and their land-use practices. This allowed for a rapid and extensive expansion of cane into old fields and areas previously maintained open by Native Americans with burning.
The rise of cane was well noted by early settlers. They often wrote of “canebreaks” extending 10 or 20 miles or more “where no firewood could be found.”
The plant can grow tall — up to 25 feet, but more commonly 10 to 12 feet. It must have been a maze to travel through. Kentucky, for a time, was called “the land of cane and clover.”
The land-use practices of the pioneering settlers did not allow expansive areas of cane. Bottomlands were put into agricultural production and the uplands opened to grazing. Cattle had a particular appetite for cane, eating it to the root and preventing it from reproducing or spreading. The small patch of cane mentioned at the beginning of this article speaks to that history. Cane’s downfall was swift and decisive.
Around Floyds Fork, cane’s next chapter will be one of expansion. The rise of cane around the Fork has already begun with the gathering of rootstocks from local patches that will be propagated and planted in coming years. The plant grows slowly at first, but soon begins spreading.
Cane will be a focal species for bottomland and riparian rehabilitation throughout The Parklands; it is an important story of restoration of a key Kentucky and American icon.
Michael Gaige is the natural areas plan author for The Parklands of Floyds Fork.
The Parklands of Floyds Fork is one of the nation’s largest new urban parks projects. Under construction now and opening in phases from 2013 to 2015, it is a system of four new parks, connected by a park drive, world-class trail system and the Louisville Loop. 21st Century Parks is the nonprofit responsible for the development and long-term management of The Parklands. Michael Gaige is a naturalist contracted by 21st Century Parks to create an extensive interpretive inventory of The Parklands’ rich and diverse landscapes. This piece is an excerpt from The Parklands’ Interpretive Inventory.
Click here to read this story from April 13, 2013 on The Courier-Journal’s web site.
Michael Gaige, a graduate from Antioch University, has educated others on how to read the natural landscape throughout the world and we are fortunate to have him educate us about The Parklands.
About the Author
Michael Gaige became involved with 21st Century Parks in 2007 on a recommendation from his graduate adviser, Tom Wessels, author of Reading the Forested Landscape. His first project was to groundtruth the nearly 4,000 acres around Floyds Fork to discover and document interesting places park users will experience and learn about. He then compiled a Natural Areas Plan to ensure that the parks’ forests and meadows are well-tended, and park infrastructure is designed in accordance with the landscape’s history and ecological detail. Michael now works as a freelance ecologist and educator and lives in upstate New York. He returns to Louisville periodically to share with others his favorite places in The Parklands, and to visit his cherished old trees.