One arguably fascinating but scarcely known fact about Alabama's native floral landscape is how little of it remains in the 200 years since whites first began settling the state.
River cane is a case in point. Traveling through Alabama in the 19th century, American naturalist William Bartram offered a series of vivid descriptions of what he encountered — a seemingly endless wilderness of "cane meadows," with some of the stalks as "thick as a man's arm, or three or four inches in diameter."
As a matter of fact, much of what is now known as Alabama was covered in this native bamboo, and even today the term Canebrake is still closely associated with the five counties in southwest Alabama that overlap the fertile bottomlands adjoining the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers.
So what happened? Cotton, for the most part. In only a few years following white settlement, the vast cane meadows of which Bartram and other travelers spoke with a measure of awe were almost entirely supplanted by sprawling cotton fields.
As it turns out, river cane, despite the blows it sustained from cotton cultivation and other human activities in the 19th century, is not endangered. But the habitat the vast prairies of river cane once provided for some 55 species has been virtually wiped out — almost 95 percent gone, according to some estimates.
At Auburn University, Dr. Mark Smith, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System wildlife specialist and assistant professor of forestry and wildlife scientist, is seeking ways to restore this lost habitat.
The immediate challenge is finding a cost-effective way to propagate river cane.
"The cane flowers only once every 20 or 30 years, so collecting seeds isn't a viable option," says Smith.
However, Smith is working with Dr. Brian Baldwin, a Mississippi State University professor specializing in alternative crops, who is developing effective ways to propagate the species.
Baldwin has concentrated on removing plants from the wild into greenhouses, then growing the plants out so that the rhizomes can be removed.
"This really brings us closer to a mass production level that will enable us to reestablish river cane stands on a wide scale," Smith says. "Right now, we're able to produce several hundred sprigs at a time, but we want to advance to the point at which we can end up with as many as 25- to 30-thousand sprigs."
The next step will be establishing what amounts to a beachhead for river cane throughout the state. Smith perceives three federal conservation programs — the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program — as the most effective venues through which an enthusiasm for river cane can be generated among landowners. All of these programs provide incentives for landowners to plant environmentally friendly flora, such as river cane. In addition to providing excellent wildlife habitat, the cane's dense root system also helps stabilize river banks.
After that, Smith sees other challenges, such as developing adequate land-management practices for river cane.
"It may just be a simple matter of planting it and walking away, but we're not sure yet," Smith says. "You still have the challenge of competing vegetation."
While this problem is typically controlled through occasional controlled burnings, there is still the question of how often these burnings should occur.
"If you burn too frequently, you get too much damage, but if you don't burn frequently enough, you may end up with too much competition from other plant species."
Through research over the next few years, Smith hopes to provide straightforward answers to many of these questions.
Smith is under no illusion that cane prairies will ever regain the preeminence they once commanded throughout the state. Even so, he believes river cane ultimately may fill a valuable niche, not only affording scenic splendor but also providing habitat for a cluster of native species, especially birds, and a safeguard against soil erosion.
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