What is Rivercane and Why is It Important?

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Rivercane is a large grass native to the southeastern US and is technically a bamboo.  For centuries, people indigenous to the southeastern US used rivercane for items such as fishing creels, blowguns, baskets, mats, building materials, and more.  When rivercane grows densely enough, it shades out other plants and can become a canebrake, not unlike a bamboo forest.  Unlike non-native bamboos, however, rivercane seldom reaches heights of more than 20 feet and stem diameters of more than one inch.

Patch of healthy bamboo and alert, white-tailed deer standing in field

The photo above shows a mature patch of rivercane, called a canebrake, in Yancey County, NC along the Cane River.

Rivercane is important not only culturally, but environmentally too.  Canebrakes provide habitat for a wide variety of animals large and small from deer and bears to moles, voles, shrews, mice, raccoons, and birds.  The dense network of underground stems, called rhizomes, stabilize stream banks and reduce erosion during floods.  The plant is also evergreen allowing it to absorb energy from the sun all year.

The Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources (RTCAR) represents the concerted effort by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in preserving natural resources for use by tribal artisans. If you have rivercane on your property and have questions regarding its care or use, please click on my name above for my contact information at the RTCAR office.

Close up of dense culms of rivercane, a native bamboo, both alive and dead

The interior of a canebrake allows little light to hit the floor of the patch making germination of seeds there difficult. Many culms, both alive and dead, pack the field of view no matter which way an explorer turns.

This is the first article in the series focusing on natural resources of significant cultural importance to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.  You may be interested in the following articles, which will be linked as they are completed in the near future (2021).

How does rivercane benefit the environment?

How can rivercane be transplanted?

How is rivercane made into baskets?

How can I tell rivercane from non-native bamboo?