Botanist Julian Campbell poses by a stand of native cane he helped replant in 1999 along Cane Run Creek in northern Fayette County. Photos by Tom Eblen
Fayette County has Cane Run Creek and Canebrake Drive. Bourbon County has Cane Ridge Road, which leads to the historic Cane Ridge Meeting House. Adair County has the community of Cane Valley.
You can find dozens of places across Kentucky named for native cane, but almost no actual cane, otherwise known as arundinaria gigantea. Julian Campbell, a botanist and an authority on Kentucky’s natural landscape, is among the people trying to change that.
Scientists think that replanting cane and other native plants, especially along creek banks, could go a long way toward improving Central Kentucky’s streamwater quality, preventing soil erosion and limiting damage by some invasive species.
But Campbell has a simpler explanation when people see him poking around streams and ask what he is doing.
“I say I’m trying to put the cane back in Cane-tucky,” he said, affecting a pretty good Kentucky accent for an Englishman.
When the first white explorers came to Kentucky in the mid-1700s, cane was abundant, growing as high as 20 feet in dense forests called canebrakes. Cane was then fairly common in river bottomland across the South. But what surprised explorers about the Inner Bluegrass region around Lexington was that cane also flourished in grassy upland savannahs dotted with centuries-old burr oak, blue ash and other giant hardwood trees.
“Here is great plenty of fine cane, on which the cattle feed and grow fat,” traveler John Filson wrote in his 1784 book, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke. “There are many cane brakes so thick and tall that it is difficult to pass through them.”
Cane flourished here because of the phosphorus-rich limestone soil. Campbell estimates that as much of 10 percent of Central Kentucky was once covered in cane. Buffalo herds ate and took shelter in it. Native peoples used it to make everything from baskets to arrow shafts.
But cane has been disappearing for two centuries: settlers cleared it, livestock ate it, construction crews dug it up and plant species from Europe and Asia choked it out.
“It’s about 99 percent gone,” Campbell said. “There’s about a dozen parcels scattered around Fayette County, little patches here and there.”
Cane and other native plants have been attracting more attention since 2006, when Lexington reached an agreement with federal regulators to spend as much as $300 million to stop chronic water pollution caused by poorly designed development.
While much of that money will be spent on better storm sewers, a big part of the solution could be restoring stream banks with native vegetation that can act as a natural filter for water runoff and a barrier to soil erosion.
“Cane is a great potential native restoration plant, but it’s got some drawbacks,” Campbell said. It is difficult to propagate and transplant, often taking years to get established. Once established, the plant can seem to have a mind of its own.
Cane’s underground root system pays little attention to property boundaries, fences and even sidewalks. But it is easily controlled by mowing, not to mention livestock and wildlife, which find cane to be a tasty treat.
“The key is to make sure you don’t put it right next to somebody’s back yard if they like things neat and orderly,” said Ken Cooke, a trustee of Friends of Wolf Run, which has been working for three years to restore native vegetation around the meandering creek and its tributaries, which run throughout South Lexington.
Campbell and Cooke have native cane in their back yards, but the plant has boundaries to keep it in check. They enjoy the bamboolike stalks and bushy leaves that remain green almost all year.
On a mid-August morning, I followed Campbell through dense undergrowth along Cane Run Creek near the Legacy Trail. We were looking for a stand of cane he helped replant in 1999. It has spread as much as 100 feet in some directions, doing battle with invasive plants such as bush honeysuckle, which creates bare, easily erodible ground beneath it.
“There may be a big role for cane in the future, but it’s going to take awhile to figure all of it out,” Campbell said. “There are so many things we still don’t understand about soil ecology.”
Native Kentucky cane along Town Branch Trail.