Until the early nineteenth century, the canebrake ecosystem covered large portions of Alabama’s river floodplains in every valley and parts of the uplands, reaching its greatest extent in the richest and most well-watered soils. These vast stands of cane, a native bamboo, sometimes intermixed with vines and trees. Nearly vanished today, stands of cane are now reduced to a few localized areas, and its specialized habitat requirements make it unlikely that cane can be reintroduced without special intervention.
The Canebrake Ecosystem
Mobile County Canebrake The dictionary defines a brake as a rough or damp area overgrown with one kind of plant (probably derived from brackens or brakes, the tall, invasive fern of Great Britain)—the very definition of a southeastern canebrake. Until spelling became standardized in the mid-nineteenth century, the term was alternatively spelled “canebreak.” The taller canebrakes most commonly consisted of giant, or river, cane (Arundinaria gigantea ssp. gigantea), an American relative of Asian bamboo that spreads by means of underground stems or rhizomes. Quick-growing shoots called culms rise at their full diameter from buried rhizomes and reach their final height of 15 to 30 feet in as little as a month or two. Individual shoots can live between five and ten years and often add considerable foliage over their lifespan, but they do not increase in either height or diameter. In good growing conditions, cane patches can be very dense, with some estimates ranging as high as 160,000 culms per acre. Giant cane tends to grow on floodplains, along levees, and on high spots in lowlands but not in standing water. The closely related but smaller switch, or arrow, cane (Arundinaria gigantea ssp. tecta) tends to favor upland localities, growing best in damp soils and seepages. Botanists have difficulty distinguishing between giant and switch cane because native cane rarely flowers and fruits, and the vegetative characteristics of the two species are notoriously difficult to differentiate.
Historically, canebrakes could be found as stands of nearly pure cane among scattered trees or as the thick understory of a high-canopy forest. Cane is a fire-resistant and fire-dependent plant. It sends its shoots up quickly after a fire and thus shades out any competing species. In mature forests, cane can take over quickly after a fire and create a dense understory. In young, second-growth woods or in forests with dense undergrowth, a hot fire typically kills both trees and understory plants, except for the fire-adapted cane. In this case, the cane forms dense pure stands in full sun. Canebrakes need periodic burning to prevent them from becoming heavily invaded by trees, shrubs, and vines over time—one of the reasons they are uncommon today.
Cane and People
Canebrake Map Southeastern Native Americans used cane for a variety of purposes. They plastered clay mud called daub on strips of cane known as wattles to build strong, weatherproof houses. They wove cane mats to line floors and interior walls. Indian cane basketry still remains the finest and most distinctive of the southeastern Indian arts, appreciated even by the earliest non-Indian visitors. Cane was a ubiquitous material for council fires, rafts, arrow shafts, quivers, containers, blowguns, lashings, flutes, canteens, and hundreds of other uses. Canebrakes were heavily populated by deer, bears (and for a time) buffalo, turkeys and passenger pigeons, timber rattlesnakes (known as canebrake rattlesnakes in the area), and cane-cutter rabbits, making them important hunting grounds.
In historic times, the canebrakes also served as forage for cattle and horses, who grew fat grazing on its high-quality foliage, and a safe refuge for harrassed Native Americans and escaped slaves. Early European travelers in Alabama emphasized the pervasiveness of canebrakes. In a December entry in his journal during his weeks-long descent of the Tombigbee in 1772, British officer and surveyor Bernard Romans reported with relief that “. . . we encamped . . .” on a high bank, where for the first time we saw the rich ground clear of large canes.” American naturalist and artist William Bartram repeatedly remarked on canebrakes during his southeastern travels, describing “vast cane meadows,” “cane pastures,” or “an endless wilderness of canes.” On the lower Tombigbee River in 1775, Bartram noted canes as “thick as a man’s arm, or three or four inches in diameter; I suppose one joint of some of them would contain above a quart of water.” Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins described a 900-acre canebrake north of Montgomery that covered the entire bend of the Alabama River now traversed by I-65 from North Boulevard to the Prattville exit. General Thomas Woodward recalled that a prominent Creek warrior, Hossa Yaholo, and his family hid in that brake from General Andrew Jackson after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The canebrakes were the subject of songs, stories, and tall-tales, and famed frontiersman and politician Davy Crocket was known as “the Canebrake Congressman.”
Canebrakes were pervasive around the city of Demopolis, and that region has long been called “the Canebrake” among locals. Cane literally covered the landscape around the junction of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers in the present-day Greene, Hale, Marengo, and Sumter Counties and for miles in every direction. As late as 1845, visiting English geologist Charles Lyell, descending the Black Warrior River by steamboat, remarked on the height and density of the canebrakes. Historically, the Conecuh River valley contained such a vast canebrake that the county was named for it. Conecuh County is still full of cane, but the linguistic origin of its name is uncertain. If the origin was Creek, then the name probably comes from koha-ánáka, meaning “near cane.” If the origin was Choctaw, however, then the word probably derives from kuni-akka, which translates as “(small) cane (down) there.” Even the name of the Coosa River may be derived from kusha, the Choctaw word for cane.
Canebrake in Tuscaloosa County Alabama’s canebrakes began to disappear with the rise of agriculture. The settlers associated the cane lands with fertility, and they quickly learned to seek out canebrakes as places to establish fields. Many of the people who came to the territory during the “Alabama Fever” land rush after the Creek War of 1813-14 were from the Carolinas, where land suitable for growing cotton was at a premium. Prospective planters flooded into Alabama in the early nineteenth century with the purpose of buying land on which to raise cotton, and they headed for the canebrakes first. By the time of the Civil War, the state’s canebrakes had been greatly reduced. Cane, with its underground rhizome, is difficult to eradicate, but for 200 years southerners have repeatedly cut, burned, grazed, grubbed, plowed, and replaced cane with corn and cotton until it has been reduced to an edge plant in marginal soils. Another factor in the demise of the canebrake is fire suppression. As farmland, grazing, and development encroached on the canebrakes, fires became much less frequent, and the brakes became thin and invaded by other species.
Remnant Canebrake Today, practically nothing remains of these magnificent stands of grass. Unlike the sizeable surviving or reestablished stands of longleaf pine or old-growth hardwoods, canebrakes are a nearly vanished feature of Alabama’s frontier landscape. Several attempts, notably in Tennessee and Kentucky, have been made to restore them, however. Moist, fertile soils will still support canebrakes, but cane is slow to get started, and there is a relationship between the size of the cane and the age and health of the rhizomes. Controlled burning is important. Too-frequent burning is damaging, but infrequent burning exposes canebrakes to invading vines and perennials. Cane is still commonly found in scattered patches throughout the state. Most stands of tall cane found in present-day Alabama are Asian bamboos imported for their superior quality as fishing poles or as ornamentals. The small brakes of native cane still found in the state are seldom larger than a few acres and are mostly confined to marginal soils and conditions. The vast canebrakes noted by early visitors, particularly those in moist rich bottomlands where cane could become large, have vanished. It is extremely difficult to view a large canebrake today in Alabama because there are apparently no sizable extant canebrakes on public lands.
- Barone, John A., et al. “Distribution of Canebrakes in 19th Century Alabama.” Journal of the Alabama Academy of Sciences 79 (January 2008): 1-11.
- Platt, Steven G., and Christopher G. Brantley. “Canebrakes: An Ecological and Historical Perspective.” Castanea 62 (March 1997): 8-21.