Karl Williard stands in front of a canebrake established at Southern Illinois University. Researchers in the forestry department in the school’s College of Agricultural Sciences are studying the effects of cane as part of riparian buffer strips.
Karl Williard stands in front of a canebrake established at Southern Illinois University. Researchers in the forestry department in the school’s College of Agricultural Sciences are studying the effects of cane as part of riparian buffer strips.

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 region.

“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 survived.

“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 time.”

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 the stream.

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 buffers.”

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 benefits.”

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.”