Auburn professor working to restore river cane in Alabama

AUBURN – An Auburn University professor wants today’s Alabamians to experience what Native Americans used as a mainstay in daily life and what 18th century naturalists saw as prime wildlife habitat.

Mark Smith, assistant professor in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and a specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, is developing ways to restore river cane that once covered floodplains throughout the state.

“It’s extremely beneficial for wildlife, soil erosion prevention and could possibly be used an agricultural commodity,” Smith said.

Smith is excavating river cane plants in Alabama and sending them to a project collaborator, Roundstone Seed Company in Upton, Ky., which will use greenhouses to grow 25,000 sprigs from the roots. A year from now, Smith will plant those sprigs on three 30-acre plots in Marshall and Etowah counties in north Alabama.

“Many birds depend on canebrakes as habitat,” he said. “The endangered and possibly extinct Bachman’s Warbler once thrived in canebrakes. Deer and other game animals also like cane thickets.”

According to the online Encyclopedia of Alabama, canebrakes, also spelled canebreaks, once covered much of the Southeast. Naturalist and artist William Bartram in the 1770s witnessed “vast cane meadows,” “cane pastures” and “an endless wilderness of canes.” On the lower Tombigbee River in 1775, Bartram noted canes as “thick as a man’s arm, or three or four inches in diameter.”

River cane is an American relative of Asian bamboo that spreads by means of underground stems and can reach heights of 30 feet. Native Americans used river cane to build shelters and to make baskets, arrow shafts and a variety of utensils.

“Canebrakes have disappeared over time as land was cleared for other agricultural purposes,” Smith said. “There are a few small canebrakes in places, but most of the large, historic canebrakes are gone. We believe there is much benefit in restoring some areas of river cane.”

Smith’s work at Auburn builds upon laboratory work done at Mississippi State University, where he obtained his doctorate in 2004.

(Written by Charles Martin.)

Contact: Mark Smith, (334) 844-8099 (mds0007@auburn.edu), or
Charles Martin, (334) 844-9999 (marticd@auburn.edu)