What is Arundo?

Jeremy Laukkonen

Arundo is a genus of grass that includes three species. It is a type of cane and a perennial grass that forms long, flexible stalks. Arundo is native to the area between the Mediterranean and Japan, though each of the species has been introduced elsewhere. The genus typically grows between 9 feet and 18 feet (3-6 m) tall and has long, thin leaves. Arundo donax has had significant impact both as a historical agricultural crop and a modern invasive pest around the world.

Arundo is often used to make reeds for bagpipes and other woodwind instruments.
Arundo is often used to make reeds for bagpipes and other woodwind instruments.

Arundo donax, also known as giant cane, can grow to heights upward of 30 feet (10 m) but usually doesn't exceed 18 feet (6 m). This perennial grass bears large, feathery flowers each summer, but its seeds are generally not fertile. Rather than growing from seed, it more commonly reproduces by using an underground rhizome mat. These rhizome mats spread under the soil and form thick, fibrous masses. Even a small portion of the rhizome mat can successfully sprout new arundo, allowing it to propagate easily, even without seeds.

Though native to East Asia, arundo donax has been successfully introduced to similar subtropical areas around the world. It has been cultivated for many uses, both in the distant past and today. Its leaves were used long ago as burial wrappings, while the canes were used as walking sticks and fishing poles, and even turned into paper. Arundo canes can be used today to make reeds for woodwind instruments and bagpipes, and the canes have a long history of use in flutes and panpipes. Arundo's quick growth and and the fact that it requires little or no fertilizer also means it has potential as biomass for biofuel and other uses.

Arundo donax was first brought to the U.S. in the 1920s for use as an ornamental plant, erosion control in irrigation ditches and for reeds in woodwind instruments. It since has gained status as an invasive plant. Its ability to grow incredibly fast in many different soil types and conditions means it tends to outgrow native plants. It also regrows from its rhizome mat very quickly after fires, leading it to further outpace native species.

The plant's ability to grow well in riparian areas near coastal rivers and streams is seen as another potential threat on many levels. Scientists don't believe arundo donax provides any benefit for animals native to these areas. It also overtakes native plants that can provide habitat to these animals, effectively kicking the native animals out of their home. Arundo donax also burns well, leaving areas in which it grows vulnerable to wildfires. It then regrows more quickly than native plants, leaving the area even more vulnerable to future fires.

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