Native switchcane's versatility stands tall

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Standing above one’s peers has several advantages. In most cases, the tall individual will be immediately noticed and usually recognized, hopefully for positive and refined qualities.

The elevated individual eventually attracts those with similar attributes in both altitude and other features. This collection has been referred to by a variety of terms.

If a positive and productive group, they can be termed a “committee” or “council.” If a destructive assemblage, the term “gang” is frequently applied.

In horticultural terms the words applied can be “thicket,” or the much lesser used appellation “brake.” In Franklin and Gulf counties this terminology is usually applied to canebrakes.

Arundinaria gigantea, commonly known as switchcane, can form thick groves is some local environments. It is the sole native bamboo species and has a long history of use by humans.

Identifying this plant is a relatively simple process. The first clue is its height. It is typically in the six-foot range, but under ideal conditions it will reach 25 feet.

The leaves are long and proportionally thin. They are usually erect when new, but droop with age and can reach 12 inches in length.

Their edges are straight, and the tips are pointed. The lower surface of the leaves frequently has short fine “hairs” sparsely scattered.

This plant is found in a variety of north Florida environments including swamps, upland pine/hardwood forest and riverbanks. Consistent moisture supports growth, but it will survive dry periods.

Its ideal growing conditions include filtered light, but it will take sunnier or shadier sites. Growth rates will be slower, and plants will not achieve they maximum potential.

Reproduction is usually accomplished by rhizome expansion. These roots grow to establish clusters of plants which eventually become the canebrakes of legend and lore.

Rarely, usually only once during its life, switchcane will bloom. Reproduction by seed is relatively uncommon.

While related to golden bamboo, the exotic invasive species, switchcane has none of the unrestrained capabilities of its Asian cousin. It does share many of the useful traits which make this plant a resource to native animals and humans.

The foliage is the exclusive feed stock for six butterfly species. The dense clusters of plants provide nesting for birds and refuge for many small mammals.

The pre-Columbian residents of Florida and the Southeastern region depended on this plant for a variety of items used on a daily basis. Tools, hunting implements, household good and even food were made from this native plants.

The pliable nature of the leaves and young stems made this an ideal material for weaving baskets and mats. The same quality also made it an excellent building material for shelters and homes.

Even today, this plant is used as livestock fodder. In the days of Florida cow hunters and cracker cattle, the cattle would use it as a high-fiber dietary staple. For sheep herders, it is known as mutton grass which small ruminants will consume.

Use in ornamental horticulture has been limited to this point, but it has been employed in sandy areas where erosion has been a problem. Its dense root system stabilizes the soil and minimized its lost.

It also may be a discipline implement. Some sources indicate the common name is attribute to its shoots being used as switches for naughty children.

While little known in contemporary Franklin and Gulf counties, this native plant stands tall among its companions, and in its ability to serve human (at least parents) and non-human residents.

To learn more about this useful native plant Franklin and Gulf counties, contact the nearest UF/IFAS County Extension Office or visit https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/find-your-local-office/. To read more stories by Les Harrison visit Outdoorauthor.com and follow him on Facebook.

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