Giant Cane in the Bluegrass

Giant cane
Giant cane can reach 30 ft. in height but is more commonly 15-20 ft. tall

Giant cane, Arundinaria gigantea, was abundant in the Bluegrass before the area was settled. Bison herds maintained cane, grazing on it but then leaving for long periods, allowing the cane to recover. When bison were replaced by cattle, sheep and horses, the cane quickly disappeared. Natural stands of cane are today quite rare in the Bluegrass. Cane was abundant, dense and tall. Josiah Collins tells of stepping off the buffalo trace that is now Harrodsburg Road into a tall stand of cane, getting lost, and coming out three days later near Ft. Boonesborough. Filson’s map from 1784 and tales like Collins’ tell us that cane was abundant, dense, and tall.

In spite of its density, cane did not prevent the Bluegrass tree species from regenerating. All the important Bluegrass trees are tolerant of shade when young.  It is common in cane stands to find tree seedlings growing slowly in the shade of the cane.

Map of part of the Bluegrass near Lexington in 1784
John Filson’s 1784 map of the Bluegrass showing “Fine cane” along the Elkhorn. The colored line indicates the boundary between the Inner Bluegrass (toward Lexington) and the Outer Bluegrass. Filson map orthorectified by Venerable Trees, Inc.

Today, cane is found at scattered locations in the Bluegrass. Some cane stands are recently planted, while others are remnants of larger stands from the past.

In contrast to the vanishing cane, invasive species like bush honeysuckle are taking over forested areas of the Bluegrass.  Honeysuckle forms a dense understory that prevents trees from becoming established.  Removing honeysuckle is often ineffective, or temporary, because the plant can regenerate from stump or root sprouts, and because birds carry the abundant seeds everywhere. For honeysuckle removal to be effective and long-lasting, something needs to be planted in the understory or mid-story to replace it. Various native shrubs such as rusty blackhaw or spicebush can be effective, but it is difficult to plant shrubs densely enough to keep honeysuckle out.

Giant cane could be an effective replacement for honeysuckle along woods margins, where honeysuckle is most successful. Cane won’t grow under the deep shade of a forest canopy, but will grow well on the canopy edge where moderate sunlight is available.

A giant cane stand in autumn
A giant cane stand in autumn

Giant cane mixed with trees creates excellent wildlife habitat, and is quite attractive. It can be a bit aggressive in spreading out, but mowing around the edges is an effective control.

There are several problems that make giant cane difficult to establish and maintain. It is notoriously difficult to transplant, requiring considerable skill to be successful. Few nurseries carry it, and propagating by dividing roots of existing plants often fails. Like other bamboos, giant cane is monocarpic – it flowers and bears seeds only once, then dies. This only happens at long intervals of 10-20 years. That means that seeds are rarely available and that, periodically, an entire stand will die. Usually, a stand that dies has produced enough seeds for a new generation of cane to take over from the previous one.

giant cane
Giant cane shaded by Shumard oak and black walnut

In the next couple of years, Venerable Trees will initiate experiments on some farms in Horse Country to restore cane and use it as a management tool to control honeysuckle.  One potentially effective way to use cane to reduce maintenance costs would be to fill tree pens with a mixture of native trees and cane. The cane would eliminate mowing costs and keep the honeysuckle out.  The photo to the left  of Shumard oak and black walnut with giant cane resembles what we have in mind for tree pens – just add a plank fence.