Arundinaria, commonly called cane, is the only genus of bamboo native to eastern North America. There are three species: A. appalachiana or hill cane, A. tecta or switchcane, and A. gigantea, commonly called giant cane or river cane. The canes grow only in the eastern United States, from New Jersey in the north to Florida in the south, and west to Texas and Ohio. The plant was very important to Native Americans before European colonization. Arundinaria was first described in 1788, when it was classified under the grass genus Arundo, and thought to have only two species, A. gigantea and A. tecta.
Arundinaria stalks are 1.6 to 26 feet (0.5 to 8 meters) tall and feature rhizomes, or horizontal underground stems. They produce seeds rarely, and seed production is often followed by the death of the colony. Arundinaria plants feature a fan-like growth of leaves, called a top knot, at the top of new stems.
A. appalachiana is native to the Appalachian Mountains of the southeastern United States, while A. tecta grows in swamps and other wet areas, and A. gigantea grows along perennial streams. A. appalachiana was originally classified as a variant of A. tecta, but became classified as a separate species in 2006. A. appalachiana is the smallest species in the genus, with stalks limited to about 3.2 feet (1 meter) in length, while A. gigantea is the largest Arundinaria species.
At the time of early European exploration of the present day United States, Arundinaria grew in extremely large concentrations called canebrakes, especially in river lowlands. The canebrakes covered hundreds of thousands of acres or hectares. Clearing, farming, and fire have since depleted these growths, while the plant lost its importance due to presumed superior technology from overseas and to the forced relocation of the indigenous people who made use of the cane plants.
Before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans used cane as fuel, food, and a craft medium, using parts of the plant to make such diverse items as clothing, housing, basketry, woven mats, pipes, musical instruments, weapons, jewelry, furniture, and boats. Arundinaria was also used to make medicine and as a feed for livestock. The plant has traditionally been used to stimulate the kidneys and renew strength. A. gigantea was historically used to fashion flutes and woven baskets, particularly by the Cherokee and other tribes of the eastern United States. The canebrakes were also used as wild game habitats and agricultural land.