In scattered groups of two or three, or in denser patches, Appalachian hill canes – short, tough little shoots of native bamboo – are liberally sprinkled on the slopes of many of our Southern mountains. Although there are upwards of a thousand recognized species of bamboo worldwide, North America can claim only three native species, all in the temperate zone. The other two indigenous species, river cane and switch cane, were classified as early as 1788. But the little Appalachian hill cane, our most unique species, was not ‘discovered’ and recognized as a distinctively different plant until 2007.
Hill cane, Arundinaria appalachiana, usually stands at two feet or less, but under optimum conditions it can grow six feet tall. Apart from its diminuitive size, this smallish species differs from other canes in one important way. It is deciduous, dropping its leaves in the fall. Common in the southern Appalachians and well known by local residents, Appalachian hill cane had been previously categorized by the scientific community as a deciduous variant of switch cane. Alan Weakley, a botanist with the University of North Carolina, introduced botanists at Iowa State University to the Appalachian bamboo. Dr. Lynn Clark, who had already identified 74 new species of cane, recognized it immediately as a new and distinctively different species.
While growing up in the southern Appalachians I often saw hill canes on dry slopes in the woods. To us they were so ordinary they didn’t even have a name. For many years I didn’t even know what they were. They weren’t intrusive, nor were they useful in any way we knew. They weren’t especially attractive either, spindly looking, jointed tall grasses. The stems were so tough you couldn’t break them with your hand. Finally a friend identified them to me as little canes. Later in life at my home in the Blue Ridge I found a dense stand of these deciduous small canes on rich bottomland soil, in full sun, near a creek. The stalks were erect, a little less than half an inch in diameter, and about five feet tall. They were robust plants, growing in profusion alongside an old pasture fence at an elevation of about 2500 feet. About six to eight inches apart, they were practically impenetrable, forming a miniature canebrake.
There is much conflicting information regarding identification of our native canes. In 1788 Thomas Walter identified river cane, Arundinaria gigantea, and switch cane, Arundinaria tecta, as two separate species. Later Andre Michaux, unaware of Walter’s work, published in 1803 a description of the canes he had encountered and grouped them into one species. In 1914 C. D. Beadle categorized hill cane as a variation of Arundinaria tecta or switch cane. According to Dr. Clark of Iowa State and her colleagues, river cane, switch cane, and hill cane are three distinct species.
My little patch of hill cane was growing right where I didn’t want it, so one winter I cut those leafless stalks all down. The next spring it was right back, vigorous as ever. But in time I had my way with it. Discouraged, it retreated to the edge of the field, where it hid in the shade of a maple tree. Now I am sorry I was so bent on its eradication as presently there are only a few left. I have repented of my error, and am working to reintroduce Appalachian hill cane in a more suitable location on the other side of the creek, where I trust it will eventually attain all five feet of its former glory.