CARBONDALE, Ill. — Farmers in southern Illinois could
someday be growing cane in their fields, but not as a cash crop.
Researchers at Southern Illinois University have for several
years been experimenting with cane for use in riparian buffers to filter runoff
from farm fields. And there appear to be some benefits.
Giant cane, a woody perennial grass that grows mainly in the
southeastern quadrant of the nation, is a cousin of bamboo. It is the same plant
used to make low-tech fishing poles.
Southern Illinois is within its northern boundary. The plant
is found growing wild near rivers and streams in the region south of Interstate
64, which runs east of St. Louis.
SIU forestry professors Jon Schoonover and Karl Williard
have been among those involved in the research project, which began in 2008.
The first step was establishing a canebrake at the
university farm. The breeding stock was taken from wild populations in the
“We’d been digging it from canebrakes elsewhere in southern
Illinois,” Schoonover said. “We hate to keep destroying canebrakes to spread
canebrakes, so we decided we’d start our own nursery for a source.”
That has been a successful venture. The replanting has
resulted in survival rates of 60 to 80 percent. Last year was an aberration, as
it was for most farmers in Illinois, as none of the 1,200 plants
“It depends a lot on timing — when you get them in the
ground and when you harvest them,” Schoonover said. “Ideally, you want to
harvest them in the spring, so you don’t have to store them for a long
The outdoor nursery at SIU has expanded over the few years
of the project.
“In terms of height, it does all its growing in one year,”
Schoonover said. “But in terms of expansion of the canebrake, it takes time.
According to some of the things I’ve read, it will double in one year. Each
year, it could double.”
Cane does best in well-drained soils. In southern Illinois,
that is largely land around streams and rivers.
“It likes well-drained soils,” Schoonover said. “A lot of
our riparian soils around streams are higher in sand content, so it’s more
well-drained. Farming has kept it to the edges of the stream. Historically, it
used to be spread across our floodplain.”
Studies at SIU show cane stands can be quality components of
riparian buffers that usually are comprised of trees and related growth. Studies
involve testing runoff water at different points in a strip made up of a
canebrake adjacent to the field with a forested strip separating the cane from
Schoonover’s research indicates that canebrake buffers hold
their own with forested strips.
“We wanted to compare it to adjacent forested areas, to see
how well does it function in terms of trapping sediment and keeping nitrogen and
phosphorus from getting into the streams,” Williard said.
“Jon’s studies show that in the first 10 feet of that
buffer, it did better than the forest. And in the next 10 to 20 feet, the forest
caught up and they were about the same.
“We had good sediment deposition rates. As much as 90 to 95
percent of the sediment was being deposited in those cane buffers. In terms of
nitrogen and phosphorus, 40 to 80 percent of that would get trapped by those
Canebrakes have some benefits over forested buffer strips,
including providing wildlife habitat. Specifically, the Swainson’s warbler uses
canebrakes for nesting and breeding.
Government agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources have expressed interest
in restoring canebrakes. Williard also sees benefits to agriculture.
“They’re looking at it more from a wildlife perspective, but
we’re coming at it from the water quality end and marrying those two,” he said.
“The Nature Conservancy is including some canebrake restorations based on Jon’s
work showing that it’s going to give some significant water quality
Williard also believes cane may be accepted more by farmers,
who already are familiar with growing a similar plant — corn.
“From the ag side, we’d like to see it being promoted as a
possible species to include in a riparian restoration design in southern
Illinois,” he said. “Technically, it’s in the grass family. That’s the whole
issue with trying to convince farmers to plant riparian buffers — they’re more
apt to put in grasses than they are trees.”