Don’t be fooled by imitations. While there are several hundred (if not thousands of) species of Bamboo, there are also a handful of lookalikes to be aware of and perhaps to be avoided. Last year we told you about that friendly desktop pot of Lucky Bamboo that you probably thought belonged to the Bamboo family. Don’t worry, we forgive you. It was an honest mistake. The folks at the hardware store just wouldn’t sell as many if they labeled them “Lucky Dracaena”.
Today we’d like to tell you about an invasive reed grass clogging the creek beds of southern California, and spreading vigorously. From a distance and to the untrained eye, it will look a lot like Bamboo, but it’s actually a Mediterranean import known as Arundo donax or giant cane.
As you probably realize, or perhaps have even witnessed, many varieties of bamboo can also be very invasive. What starts as an ornamental accent or an oriental privacy hedge can spread into a horrible nuisance under the right (or wrong) conditions. This is what we call “sustainability in its unfriendliest form.” While it makes a beautiful addition to many domestic landscapes, Bamboo does require proper containment. This can be as cheap and simple as an old wine barrel, or as expensive and complicated as you want to make it. Otherwise it will spread and spread, generally in the direction of water, such as lawn sprinklers.
Unlike Bamboo, however, Arundo donax is native to the Mediterranean. This means that California climate conditions are ideal, with or without the irrigation required by most species of Bamboo. It was brought over in the 1820 for erosion control in the Los Angeles area, and in the subsequent 190 years has established a tenacious foothold throughout the region, but especially in riverbeds.
As with most invasive species, Giant Cane has no real predators in this part of the world, so it continues to spread while choking out the native flora. Ideas for containment range from toxic chemical herbicides (not necessarily something we like to see sprayed around creeks and river beds) to the importation of natural predator insects from the other side of the globe (can you say “unforeseeable environmental consequences”?).
One reason that the Arundo donax is so resilient against local insects has to do with the high levels of noxious chemicals in its leaves and stems. As it so often happens in plant chemistry, many of these “toxic” chemicals also happen to be psychotropic alkaloids and tryptamine compounds. So while it may lack most of the industrial applications that Bamboo is known for, this giant reed grass may have certain pharmaceutical and/or recreational uses yet to be fully explored.
Otherwise, the Giant Cane has historically been used for flute making and is also said to be an ideal material to make reeds for woodwind instruments. The canes are not nearly as hard and durable as Bamboo, but it does get very tall (upwards of 20 feet) with fairly thick canes (over 1″ in diameter). But despite its size and feasibility as a privacy screen, Arundo donax does not have nearly the same grace and elegance as a healthy stand of bamboo.
Finally, the Giant Cane’s invasive characteristics appear to be far worse than those of bamboo. Highly flammable, the cane has been known to increase the probability and intensity of wildfires. And what’s worse, it has a far better burn-recovery rate than any native species, so that when the landscape is decimated by fire, the canes sprout up first, leaving no room for the original natives to return or survive.
So be careful, and remember to enjoy your grasses responsibly.