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A Floridata Plant Profile 1308 Arundinaria gigantea

Common Names: giant cane,switchcane,river cane,canebrake bamboo Family: Poaceae (grass Family)
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a canebrake
Giant cane is a bamboo that grows in dense colonies, called canebrakes, along rivers and streams and bottomland forests.
giant cane leaves
Giant cane is evergreen in warm winter Zones 8-9.


Giant cane is a native American bamboo that can (occasionally) get up to 25 ft (8 m) tall, although 6-10 ft (2-3 m) in height is more typical. Giant cane has hollow culms (stems) up an inch (2 cm) in diameter, but more often less than a half inch (1 cm) across. The yellowish green culms remain unbranched during their first year. Lateral branches appear on older culms and leaves emerge from each node. Leaves are lance shaped and up to 8 in (20 cm) long. They are pubescent on the undersides. Open panicles of purple spikelets appear irregularly at several-year intervals. Giant cane spreads indefinitely on thickened subterranean rhizomes, characteristically forming dense, single-species thickets referred to as canebrakes.

Most authorities recognize two subspecies: Arundinaria gigantea gigantea, and A. g. tecta. The latter, called switchcane, is smaller, usually less than 6 ft (2 m) tall, has hollow tubelike canals in the rhizomes (which A. g. gigantea lacks), and is usually found in wetter habitats. Some experts consider these to be two different species.


Arundinaria gigantea occurs naturally on river banks and in mesic and bottomland hardwood forests in the southeastern United States from East Texas to North Florida and north to southern Missouri and Virginia. It is absent from South Florida and southern Louisiana. Giant cane was formerly much more abundant than it is now. This is the only species of bamboo native to the United States.


Light: Giant cane grows in partial shade, to intermittent sun, to full sun. Moisture: Giant cane thrives in rich, fertile mesic soils, and can tolerate extended periods of flooding as well. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 - 9 . Giant cane is evergreen in zones 8 and 9. The above ground parts die back in winter in cooler climates. Propagation: Propagate giant cane by division along the rhizomes. This is best done in late winter before new growth begins. Seeds are rarely encountered. You probably won’t need to help it propagate anyway!

a canebrake
A canebrake grows along a small march stream at the Boone Country Arboretum in Northern Kentucky.


Use giant cane for a screen or dense hedge. It spreads rapidly and wherever you use it, expect to mow around the stand’s perimeter. Giant cane has a tropical look that goes well naturalized with other partial shade tolerant plants under large trees. Giant cane is perfect for rain gardens where the plants must be able to hang on during dry periods, but be unfazed when it floods. It can be used for erosion abatement.

Giant cane does not flower every year, but when it does, many individuals over a wide area bloom simultaneously for the whole growing season. Once the seeds mature, the stems that flowered die. Non flowering culms usually live about 10 years.

Young shoots are edible and can be used as a potherb. Cattle relish the young growth and feral pigs eat the rhizomes. Caterpillars of the southern pearly eye butterfly are dependent on giant cane.

Native Americans made baskets from giant cane and fashioned blowguns, arrow shafts, spears, fish traps, tobacco pipes, and musical flutes from the hollow stems. A decoction of the rhizomes was used to treat kidney ailments and as a laxative.


Once widespread in the Southeast, dense stands of giant cane, or canebrakes, are now a vanishing habitat. Extensive cattle grazing, disturbance by feral hogs, farming, and fire exclusion are implicated in the demise of this distinctive plant community. With the loss of extensive canebrakes, Bachman’s warbler has recently gone extinct, and Swainson’s warbler has become very uncommon. One has to wonder what other species that depended on canebrakes have vanished.

Steve Christman4/20/18

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Arundinaria species profiled on Floridata:

Arundinaria gigantea

( giant cane,switchcane,river cane,canebrake bamboo )

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