North Carolina Genealogy Forum  |  North Carolina Genealogy Newsletter

River Cane and Canebrakes


Sign up for our North Carolina Genealogy newsletter:

This might sound a bit off topic for North Carolina Genealogy, but sometimes we don’t realize how much the landscape has changed since our area here in Western North Carolina was colonized. At the time that the settlers came to this area there were LARGE areas of what were called canebrakes. Almost literally a forest of the sole bamboo native to this continent. The River Cane grew 20-30 feet and sometimes stretched on for miles. By some reports the French Broad River was bordered for many miles by a jungle of cane. Some of our place names still carry reference to the prevelance of this plant, Cane Creek is one example. These days there are few cane breaks, you might see a cluster of river cane here and there, it seems out of place to us now, but it was a sign of good farm land to our ancestors.

They say that 20 foot tall cane indicated good farmland and 30 foot cane indicated the BEST farmland available. I have also read that the cane shoots are about the most nutritious forage for animals you can find. The cane was easy to clear though and quickly gave way to farm land. I wonder if the fields the cane were cleared of had been fields for the Cherokee years earlier. In any case…. recently I ordered a few rhizomes of River Cane to see if I could get some started. There are several good resources related to river cane online, I ordered rhizomes from a place called Melody Acres

River cane was vital to the Cherokee for their basket weaving as well as material for blowguns, arrows and probably countless other uses (as well as even eating the new shoots.) I also understand that they made use of cane as torches by tattering one end and lighting. I know some may be thinking “but bamboo runs and is terrible to get rid of”… well, so is the wild rose that was imported in the 1800s as fencing… I’d rather have a native (thornless) invasive plant if I had the choice.

There’s even one family story we have of the daughters of Adam Biffle (early settler in the Weaverville area) hiding in the canebrakes from indians when their father had travelled to Old Fort. (He operated a mill on Reems Creek.)