June 25, 2008

SIUC developing nation’s first cane nursery

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Where do you raise cane? In a cane nursery, of course, and the nation’s first such cane production plant is going into the ground now at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

“The ultimate goal is to be able to produce giant cane propagules (bits of the plant that will produce new plants) for riparian filter strips or habitat restoration while continuing our research on planting methods, fertilization and biofuel potential,” said James J. Zaczek, a forest ecologist in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Cane, America’s only native bamboo, once stretched for miles across the southeastern United States in vast, nearly impenetrable stands known as canebrakes, providing fishing poles for generations of small boys and their dads, fodder for cattle and cover for critters and birds. Today, they’ve largely disappeared, lost to crops, cows and the notion that really, they’re just weeds.

“Only about 2 percent of the canebrake habitat is left,” Zaczek said.

“It’s a little more common than prairie, but the situation is similar -- prairies disappeared for the same reasons.”

These days, though, folks are taking a second look at cane.

In small scale studies, SIUC researchers Jon E. Schoonover and Karl W. J. Williard, along with their students, have shown that planted along creeks and streams, cane’s dense, fibrous roots can keep chemicals and bacteria from washing off farm fields and into the water while protecting the banks from erosion. This makes cane very attractive to farmers. (For more on a new watershed scale study of the subject, see the June 18 news release, “Research focuses on protecting water quality.”)

Because several endangered or threatened species, such as the Swainson’s warbler, depend on canebrakes, wildlife managers have a particular interest in cane for habitat restoration.

And the plant’s fast, bushy growing habit could make it competitive with switchgrass as an alternative fuel if quality tests bear out.

If demand goes up, however, there won’t be enough to go around. That’s where the nursery comes in. After nearly a decade of forestry department research with this species, Zaczek believes he and his colleagues have the right stuff to get a giant cane nursery up and running.

“We will be trying to harvest cane as you would harvest tree seedlings in a nursery,” he said.

“I think if things go right in five years we can get enough to do that, though I don’t anticipate being able to supply hundreds of acres of giant cane for whoever wants it.

“We’re designing it more like a do-it-yourself nursery, where resource managers can use our methods and our propagules to create their own nurseries. That would give them habitat or riparian buffers and let them harvest their own rhizomes (the underground root-like stem that sends up new shoots) to plant somewhere else. It’s a sustainable ecological restoration process.”

In most countries where bamboo flourishes, folks have grown the stuff for their own purposes for centuries. That’s not the case here.

“There was not much known about propagation back when we started -- in fact there was relatively little known about the species,” Zaczek said. “That intrigued me.”

With key discoveries by student researchers, Zaczek now knows quite a bit about America’s giant cane and how to make it grow. Among the findings:

• While bamboo sprouts best from its underground parts (the rhizomes) rather than from the above-ground shoots (or culms), rhizome pieces produce more shoots if short pieces of culm remain attached.

“That gives a tremendous amount of growth -- we’d never seen that kind of multiplication,” Zaczek said. “It really did grow like a weed.”

• Rhizomes sprout better when the end with the nodes and buds receives some sunlight.

• You can plant rhizomes with a tree planter and harvest them with a backhoe.

• Rhizomes can go right into the ground without any special babying. While they might do a little better if started in a greenhouse, that slight advantage does not outweigh the expense involved in planting them twice. Herbicides proved marginally helpful, but cane can tolerate weed competition, so it doesn’t absolutely require weed killer.

“Throughout our research, we’ve tried to follow the parameters required by agencies that don’t have a lot of money to spend on restoration,” Zaczek said.

• Rhizome collection and planting should take place in the spring.

“Fall collection and planting tends to fit better with resource managers’ schedules, but we saw really poor survival then,” Zaczek said.

“We have some ideas about how to change this, but for now spring collection and planting is the best idea.”

• Periodic burning reduces the shoots’ height and diameter but increases the density and helps it spread to adjacent areas. Without fire, the stands start to die back, and while new culms appear, much dead material remains standing.

Zaczek said the work, which is ongoing, fills a gap.

“There’s not much documented research on cane’s establishment, growth and spread, and we’re providing that in a very practical framework,” he noted.

“Our attempts to scale up to larger acreages mean we could really have an effect on the landscape -- a practical, logistical restoration of canebrakes and not just a patch of cane here and there.”