Canebrakes: Relics of the River

Equinox Environmental and Duke Energy are working to improve both the cultural and ecological significance along the Tuckasegee River at the site of the former Dillsboro Dam which was removed in 2010 in Dillsboro NC.  Equinox worked with Duke Energy and others to design the ecological restoration and stabilization of the river banks at the site after the dam was taken out.  We helped replant the areas with native grasses, herbs, and trees, then took it a step further and coordinated with Duke Energy to design a river cane transplant as part of the river bank restoration.

Scott Fletcher, Senior Scientist with Duke Energy, and Owen Carson of Equinox amend the soil around transplants with hardwood mulch, decreasing the competition for resources by surrounding vegetation.

River cane (Arundinaria gigantea) was historically a very important species to both humans and wildlife in Western North Carolina.  The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) used the native bamboo for a variety of crafts, including woven baskets and fire-forged blowguns.  The re-establishment of cane brakes, or large contiguous areas of river cane, is important to the EBCI, as it reinforces their cultural heritage and provides supplies for beautiful and useful crafts.

In ecological terms, river cane was historically abundant in WNC, reaching heights up to 12m (39 ft.) and covering as much as 15 square km (5.8 square miles) or 3,706.6 acres!  However, following European settlement and agricultural development, cane brakes, which occur in rich, bottomland areas, were nearly destroyed altogether as their occupied habitat was converted to farmland.  These past forests supported plentiful fauna, including several wildlife species now extinct: Bachman’s warbler, the Passenger pigeon, and the Carolina parakeet.  These species most likely were lost when their key habitat was so significantly depleted.

Owen Carson of Equinox trims back the culms from a recently-dug clump of river cane.

All hope is not lost, though.  Remnant brakes still exist, and the donor site used in this transplant was quite impressive.  Cane to be transplanted was carefully uprooted from the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee’s (LTLT) Bottomland Preserve in Franklin, NC and transported to Dillsboro.  Approximately 50 clumps of cane with three or more stalks attached were transplanted in a small terraced floodplain, and the surrounding soil was mulched with thick hardwood chips to decrease competition from other vegetation; this ensures the initial success and establishment the cane needs to survive in the first two years.  A heavy rain moved through on the evening of the planting, furthering their chance of survival – we were all excited with such perfect conditions!  Our hope is that these clumps will quickly expand, creating a functional remnant of the now-threatened ecosystem.

All in all, the river cane work at Dillsboro could not have gone smoother.  Many thanks to the LTLT’s Land Stewardship Director, Dennis Desmond, for providing access to the cane brake found on their protected land.  Also, many thanks to Duke Energy for putting so much time and effort into enhancing the cultural and ecological value of the Dillsboro Dam site.  This was a hugely successful project, and Equinox was proud to be a part of it!

These clumps of cane have been transplanted into their new habitat; the patch lies atop a short, terraced floodplain adjacent to the mighty Tuckasegee River.

-Owen Carson, Field Technician

Equinox provides a full range of solutions for planning, design and ecosystem management services. Find out more >>