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Vol. 6(11), pp. 3-5The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalNovember 2005

Remarks Concerning Canebrakes and Cane Breaks

R J Ferry

In the previous issue, an article was written about collecting cane to be used for supporting monopodial orchid plants. Specifically, the cane is a bamboo species (Arundinaria gigantea subspecies gigantea; "giant cane"), a Texas native, and one infrequently seen along roadsides and in water runoff areas.

Fig. 1. Giant cane along fence line & roadway, Hwy 72. Karnes County; between Nordheim & Runge, Texas. Digital photo DSC_0159 Sunday, 02 October, 2005.

In the 1930's, giant cane was deliberately planted in areas particularly prone to erosion, and was introduced to reduce erosion by breaking the flow of water. As the horse and buggy days were on the way out, and automobiles were becoming more common, its slowing down or braking action on runoff water flow soon earned it the generic reputation of being a "canebrake," (Fig. 1) and that term persists in dictionaries. As well, being hardy and a somewhat invasive species, giant cane has persisted as well! Most farmed fields have managed to control it by various means, but--given a chance, particularly in a swampy or water-run-off area--it will take hold and defy eradication! That's the downside. The upside is that it can provide cover and a suitable breeding habitat for a wide variety of small animals, wild birds, and even deer.

Fig. 2. Giant cane along rural roadway, Bursch Road. DeWitt County; Texas; a few miles east of Yorktown. Digital photo DSC_0297 Friday, 04 November, 2005.

Fig. 3. Giant cane along Bursch Road. DeWitt County; Texas; a few miles east of Yorktown. Digital photo DSC_0300 Friday, 04 November, 2005.

In recent years, however, as fields have yielded to bulldozers, root plows, and general cultivation, and other erosion control practices have tended to tame erosion, these "canebrakes" have become more commonly known as "breaks" between areas under cultivation and areas that have been allowed to (more or less) revert to a wild state (Fig. 2). In short, these cane clumps are more commonly seen as "breaks" between pasture and forest or grass-covered and forested lands (Fig. 3). Along highway right-of-way boundaries, these stands of cane may be either a "brake" for water runoff, or a "break" in the general run of foliage seen as one drives along. A stand of cane may meet both definitions, or--conversely--neither definition may really apply to it. A particular stand of cane may merely be the result of seed that randomly lit in that area and proliferated; not a stand sown deliberately for its water "braking" assistance, nor as a landscape "break" in the highway's planting.

Which term is correct? "Canebrake" is certainly older, but--as with the case with all common name usage--how it's used may mean one thing to one person and something completely different to another. For example, suppose an individual says he grows "slipper" orchids. He's not really told you very much! He may be a specialist in only paphs, only phrags, or only cyps; all are "slippers." Thus, Faulkner, writing in the 1930's, about a canebrake used a slang term that meant something at that time, but may well bewilder a present-day reader.

Fig. 4. Inflorescence of giant cane (ruler: 15 cm.). DeWitt County; Texas; a few miles east of Yorktown. Digital photo DSC_298 Friday, 04 November, 2005.

Fig. 5. Inflorescence of giant cane (ruler: 15 cm.). DeWitt County; Texas; a few miles east of Yorktown. Digital photo DSC_299 Friday, 04 November, 2005.

Fig. 6. Giant cane shoots on a hillside dirt road. DeWitt County; Texas; a few miles east of Yorktown. Digital photo DSC_301 Friday, 04 November, 2005.

Botanically, the genus Arundinaria Michaux is a member of the grass family (Poaceae,...which used to be called Graminae, now a long-obsolete name). The genus Arundinaria houses about 30 species of bamboo-like plants. The word "bamboo" is a common name; a corruption of the East Indian word bambu, a general term applied to this group of woody, jointed plants, some having air canals present in their roots, others not. The inflorescence is held terminally, high above the ground where the seeds can be well scattered by the wind (Fig. 4) (Fig. 5). The genus is known originally from North America, and eastern and southern Asia, but species of it have been naturalized (man-introduced) in several other regions of the world. The name Arundinaria is derived from arundin, which we get from the Latin harundo = arundo, genitive case arundinis, meaning a reed. Also using this stem-name (no pun intended) are the genera Arundinella Raddi, and Arundo Linnaeus, both members of the grass family. Its strong grass family rhizome (Fig. 6) gives a hint of its effectiveness at holding onto the soil, even in areas of heavy rain run off. Incidently, this same stem-term of arundin was also used by Blume when he erected the genus Arundina, a Southeastern Asian genus in the orchid family. Unsurprisingly, Arundina houses three species of (you guessed it!) reed-stemmed orchid plants.

These terms, canebrake and cane break, are US-Americanisms, and considering them gives rise to wondering about word-origins for such things as bogs, fens, sloughs, and the like. Imagine an individual of a hundred years ago being hit with the terms "freeway" or "interstate." Worse, consider a few of the words used when one ventures into the "brave new world" of computers! There is talk of bits, bytes, and even mega-, giga-, and terabytes. Individuals speak of servers, browsers, and web sites, and mean nothing akin to waiters, herbivores, or arachnid colonies. In addition, people--worldwide--speak of an internet, that has nothing to do with catching fish already within a large net, and we learn there are viruses and bugs for computers as well as humans. It's enough to make one wonder whether--in this strange world of computers and words--a humble editor might venture out on an information highway and get run over!

Closer to home, and closer to propping up long-stemmed Dendrobium plants, some caution is advisable in selecting the cane to be used as a vertical propping device. It's possible to obtain a section of giant cane between one and two centimeters diamenter that's very much alive, and jamming this down into a pot of packed bark can well give it sufficient nutrition to allow it to sprout and take root! This may not be all bad if the orchidist isn't averse to a large Dendrobium specimen growing intermingled with the sprouting foliage of the giant cane. However, all bets may be off when it comes time to attempt repotting and separating the Dendrobium-giant cane combination, or--worse--if the cane manages to grow and set seed within the greenhouse!

Copyright © 2005 R J Ferry