Volunteers Restore Giant Cane Along the Chattooga River
By Jeff Magniez
The peaceful sounds of the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River can barely be heard over the clang of shovels and the squeaky axle of an old wheelbarrow. A work crew is busy at the U.S. Forest Service's historic Russell Fields on the Andrew Pickens Ranger District, just south of the State Highway 28 bridge. Instead of building with bricks and mortar along this scenic stretch of the famous river, the work crew is restoring native vegetation along its verdant banks.
The U.S. Forest Service is partnering with the Chattooga Conservancy—a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect, promote and restore the natural ecological integrity of the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River watershed—and Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources (RTCAR)—an initiative designed to assist the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as the tribe works to restore a traditional balance between maintaining and using natural resources. The objective of collaboration: to restore giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea) along the Chattooga’s stream banks.
Giant cane is a native grass found in alluvial floodplains and bottomlands that once formed extensive canebrakes throughout the southeastern United States. William Bartram, the famous 18th-century naturalist and explorer, described “vast cane meadows,” “an endless wilderness of cane” and “widespread cane swamps” during his travels. Theodore Roosevelt wrote about the cane he encountered during his 1908 bear hunting expedition in Louisiana:
The canebrakes stretch along the slight rises of ground, often extending for miles, forming one of the most striking and interesting features of the country. They choke out other growths, the feathery, graceful canes standing in ranks, tall, slender, serried, each but a few inches from his brother, and springing to a height of fifteen or twenty feet. They look like bamboos; they are well-nigh impenetrable to a man on horseback; even on foot they make difficult walking unless free use is made of the heavy bush-knife. It is impossible to see through them for more than fifteen or twenty paces and often for not half that distance. Bears make their lairs in them, and they are the refuge for hunted things.
“Giant cane is not an endangered species,” explains Dr. David Cozzo, ethnobotanist and director of RTCAR, “but it is an endangered ecosystem.”
It is estimated that up to 98 percent of original canebrakes have been lost to agriculture, cattle grazing, land clearing and the suppression of fire, which is needed to prevent the encroachment of trees into canebrakes. Non-native species, especially privet (Ligustrum spp.), also threaten existing canebrakes and hinder the expansion of cane into new sites.
The U.S. Forest Service and its partners are transplanting giant cane on a two-acre site that was once occupied by a dense stand of non-native golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea). The bamboo formed a completely closed canopy of 10- to 25-foot stems that excluded the growth of native plants and provided little, if any, wildlife habitat. The aggressive golden bamboo threatened to expand along the stream bank and into the adjacent wildlife field until it was cut down and treated with herbicides in 2009. Two years later the U.S. Forest Service used prescribed fire to burn the dead stems and prepare the site for restoration. The result is a patch of ground ripe for restoration. That’s what volunteers with the Chattooga Conservancy and RTCAR, as well as members of other groups such as the South Carolina Native Plant Society and Upstate Master Naturalist Association, are doing today.
Before beginning the project, Dr. Cozzo explained to the eager group of volunteers that giant cane is an excellent plant for erosion control along rivers because of its fibrous root system. This fact became apparent to everyone with a shovel as they struggled to slice into the fertile soil to dig up a foot of rhizome on either side of a cane stem destined for transplanting. A rhizome is a horizontal underground stem and it is from this structure that new growth will occur once it is established at the transplant site.
For several hours, the work crew digs up healthy cane from the surrounding area and transplants it into the bare ground of the restoration site until a future canebrake begins to take shape. By the time work is done, volunteers take away with them a sense of accomplishment that only comes with hard work and an important cause, never mind sore backs and a mild case of poison ivy dermatitis (author’s own experience). As they sling the last dirty shovel into the back of a pickup truck and roll the old wheelbarrow away, the waters of the Chattooga are once again heard in the distance.