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Restoring rivercane to Southwest Virginia

A woman wearing a blue shirt and with her hair in a ponytail walks in a forest, where small pink flags are visible.
Roxy Todd
/
Radio IQ
Laura Young inspects the young rivercane she and volunteers plants recently along the Bluebell Island trail in St. Paul, Va.

Did you know there’s a type of bamboo that’s native to the United States? It’s called rivercane, and it once grew near most rivers and streams. With the expansion of development over the past few centuries, it’s been nearly wiped out. A group made up mostly of volunteers is working to restore the plant in Southwest Virginia.

It’s hard to imagine someone more enthusiastic for a plant than Laura Young is about rivercane.

“They’re so cute,” Young said, nodding at four small plants growing in sandwich bags. “Little scraggly things, but they have a lot of charisma.”

Young works with the Department of Conservation and Recreation. The rivercane plants she's pointing to are humble little things, little more than stalks of grass. They look a little like bamboo plants.

“Rivercane is really amazing for stabilizing stream banks,” Young said.

She added that this plant helps prevent erosion and can withstand floods. It can also prevent the spread of invasive plants. As babies, rivercane are a few inches tall, but eventually, they could grow to 30 feet. Rivercane is grown commercially, but the plants are difficult to find, and fairly expensive.

In 2021, Young and 10 volunteers started growing rivercane in sandwich bags, using roots from an existing strand in Lee County. They nursed the plants on their porches and after the plants were big enough, they transplanted them along the Powell River.

“We saw that this needed to come back since it exists in so small of an area of its native range and it does so many amazing things,” Young said.

Three young rivercane plants growing inside sandwich bags, in a truck bed. Behind them is a hiking boot and waders.
Roxy Todd
/
Radio IQ
Three young rivercane plants growing inside sandwich bags.

Rivercane used to grow along just about every river and stream bed in the eastern and central United States. Many indigenous people used rivercane to make baskets and weapons, and they helped maintain the plant.

But with more development along riverbanks, rivercane began to disappear.

Cows also like to eat it, which is another reason it faded from the landscape.

“Apparently, it’s really delicious. So, cows would come through and really just mow that down,” Young said. There’s even a traditional fiddle song, called “Cattle in the Cane”.

Young said this plant plays an important role for several animal species. “It’s great for habitat for migratory songbirds. And then there’s also a lot of rare moths that we track that this is a specific host plant for,” Young said. “So, this is the only thing that those moths can eat. If this plant is not there, the moths are not there.”

The first year Young and her small army of volunteers grew rivercane, the results were better than she’d hoped for. And it doesn’t take a lot of technical expertise to grow these plants. “This is something a sixth-grade class could do,” Young said.

She began recruiting more volunteers and scaled up, planting more rivercane. Local colleges and universities also pitched in to help grow the young plants, until they’re ready to be transplanted.

“It was absolutely amazing. And I feel like the community’s really excited about this because it’s so important, and you can see it working,” Young said.

The strand they started in 2021 is thriving. “It’s beautiful. And it’s doing really, really well,” Young said. “And it doesn’t need our help anymore.”

Rivercane plants Laura Young and volunteers planted in 2021 along the Powell River in the Cedars Natural Area Preserve in Lee County, Va.
Courtesy Laura Young
/
Department of Conservation and Recreation
Rivercane plants Laura Young and volunteers planted in 2021 along the Powell River in the Cedars Natural Area Preserve in Lee County, Va.

This year, they started 1000 rivercane plants, and added new sites along the Clinch River, in St. Paul. The plants are just off a walking trail, so people can see them easily. Young says she hopes they can eventually expand into other watersheds across southwest Virginia, to help rivercane return to the landscape.

 

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.