Kentucky’s origin has been variously spelled Cane-tuck-ee, Cantucky, Kain-tuck-ee and Kentuckee before its modern spelling was accepted. The name Kentucky originally referred to the Kentucky River, where from came the name of the region. Its etymology is from Native American languages (kenhata’ke, kehta’keh) with several possible meanings from “meadow lands” to “river of blood” or “cane lands.”
“Cane lands” would have been an apt description of Kentucky when the early settlers arrived. Though now seldom seen, native “river cane” was a defining species in the landscape. While traveling the state, Simon Kenton frequently referred to Kentucky’s huge stands of river cane, or canebrakes, and the outstanding hunting they afforded. Early naturalist William Bartram reported seeing river cane as far as he could see. Individual canebrakes were hundreds of acres, stretching uninterrupted for miles. Now cane is seldom seen and very sparsely scattered along creeks, rivers, and fringes of fields. It occupies no more than 2% of its original range.
River cane (Arundinaria gigantea) is our native bamboo. Belonging to the grass family, this bamboo grows to gigantic heights, up to 30-feet tall in very fertile soils. In fact, early Kentucky settlers coveted ground where cane grew for farmland. Farmers knew that a stand of 10-foot cane grew in good soil; 30-foot cane grew in the very best soil.
Cane grows the same as other grasses. It spreads via underground stems, or rhizomes. As rhizomes spread through the ground, they sends up shoots that produce individual reeds, as many as 65,000 reeds per acre, resulting in impenetrable canebrakes.
River cane is extremely hardy. It grows well in high and low elevations, and in extreme heat and sub-zero temperatures. Most frequently found along rivers and streams, it can withstand long periods under water during floods. Surprising though, it can also survive long periods of drought.
To see a particular canebrake bloom is literally a once in a lifetime event. Individual canebrakes will exist for about 50 years before blooming. Botanists don’t know what triggers cane to bloom, but when the time is right it blooms in grand fashion, producing an astonishing number of seeds. Mysteriously, after blooming a canebrake then suddenly dies. The canebrake quickly reestablishes itself though with the many seeds it has produced, not to bloom again for another 50 years.
Unfortunately, the loss of our native river cane has also led to the extinction of several wildlife species. The Bachman’s warbler depended on large canebrakes for nesting and is now extinct. The Carolina parakeet, the only native parrot of eastern North America, was also closely tied to cane and it too is gone from our world. Extinct since 1904, the beautiful and colorful Carolina parakeet was common in Northern Kentucky, especially around Big Bone Lick where it was attracted to the area’s natural salt deposits and river cane.
Native Americans were also very dependent upon cane. Southeastern tribes used river cane for a variety of weaponry. Because it is strong and light, the best arrow shafts were made of river cane. Atlatl darts, an ancient spear-like weapon, were also made of cane because of its strength and flexibility. Blowguns from cane are still effective for hunting small game, as rabbits and squirrels. Cane was a component in knives, arrows, fish spears, minnow traps and torches.
Cane was also used for Native American household goods. Flutes and pipe stems were made from cane; in fact river cane flutes are still common today. Reeds were an essential building material for posts, roofing, rudimental furniture and mats. The ancient art of basket making, dating back some 6,000 years, is one of the hardest indigenous skills to learn. Even now the tightly woven river cane basket is one of the most valued Native American artifacts, sometimes demanding prices of several thousand dollars.
The evergreen canebrakes attracted a wide variety of game for Native Americans to hunt. Deer, bears and rabbits used canebrakes as food and cover. The Indians themselves ate cane, finding the young shoots tender and nutritious. River cane may well have been the single most important resource for southeastern tribes.
River cane, though now uncommon, is easy to propagate. It’s just a matter of letting it spread, though it is not invasive like non-native bamboos. Native cane can be purchased at many nurseries specializing in native plants and is an attractive addition to any landscape.
River cane belongs here. It is very much a part of our Cane-tuck-ee heritage.