Poem By Charity Gilbert
I did not think the wind was angry,
I took her as a child, running up the hillside.
A wild one, full of life.
Now that I am grown,
She too has grown.
No longer a young girl, energetic and playful,
Now she screams like a hawk soaring over the land.
She is not silent.
She will not take the abuse.
She will fight for the land.
She will scream,
Tearing through the trees just as you have done.
She knows her voice will be heard,
Her presence will be felt.
You will try to ignore, but she will howl through the air and pierce through to your heart until you understand just what you have done.
She is beautiful and strong and tumultuous and terrified.
I know the wind because I am the wind.
So tell me, do you think the wind is angry?
You have probably heard of Kudzu, the invasive species that blankets huge areas of the Southeast in carpets of vines so thick they can starve even mature trees. And, at this time of year, in mid-March, you have probably noticed the hillsides of Central Kentucky coated in what looks like a blanket of snow, but is actually a monotypic horde of Callery pear trees, more commonly known as Bradford pears.
Invasive species can happen when a plant is introduced to an ecosystem it is not native to. Kudzu and Callery pear are both native to Asia, where they are valuable parts of their ecosystems—but in America, they don’t know how to behave, and they grow out of control, replacing biodiverse ecosystems with dense, homogeneous thickets where native species cannot survive.
But will an introduced species always become invasive? Is it possible for an introduced species to benefit the ecosystem?
It started with a few sentences in a book I was reading about the history of the Appalachian Mountains. The book briefly discussed Kentucky, before colonization, being covered with dense thickets called canebrakes, which mostly disappeared when settlers plowed and cleared the fertile bottomlands where they grew. “Cane,” the book claimed, was likely the origin of the name Kentucky—“Kain-tuck.”
“Cane” was just what the settlers called the tall, woody plant that dominated in canebrakes—the name refers to any of the three similar plant species belonging to the genus Arundinaria. In Kentucky, it was most likely A. gigantea, or giant river cane. Giant river cane has no relationship to plants like sugar cane, and are actually North America’s only native bamboo.
Bamboo? In Kentucky?
I recalled having seen some strangely bamboo-like plants in the area, including a large patch in an empty lot close to my house. My memory rushed back to several years ago, when my brother had been camping in a “bamboo forest” along a creek that bordered a farm. How strange, I had thought. Who would plant bamboo in the middle of nowhere like that?
Unless…it was native bamboo?
The next day I went out and walked to the empty lot where the plant I remembered grew. In the drainage ditch below, there was a thick, bushy mass of plants surrounding a few boxelders and willows, still green where the trees were bare. They were unmistakably bamboo, with gently curving bundles of accumulated dead stems and pale husks climbing their segmented stalks in an alternating, zigzag pattern.
I took photos and compared them side by side to the largest canebrake I could find a picture of online—a patch of less than a quarter acre. They were identical.
Kentucky had bamboo. It was right there in the name the whole time. And I had never heard of it.
I set out to learn everything I could about giant river cane, scouring the internet top to bottom for every mention of the plant I could find. I was amazed by what I found. The moist, rich floodplains and stream banks of the southeastern USA were once occupied by thick forests of bamboo that could reach 40 feet tall, estimated to cover ten million acres. The evidence that they existed is everywhere. All throughout the Southeast, there are places with “cane” in the name; “canebrake” is a name for a rattlesnake in Georgia. In the famous song “Sixteen Tons,” Merle Travis sings: “I was raised in the canebrake by an ol’ mama lion.” In 1947 when the song was written, listeners knew what a canebrake was.
Why, then, is information about them so scarce? Why is the river cane itself so rare now? I thought. What happened to the bamboo forests, and why isn’t anyone talking about it?
I had developed a bond with the little canebrake on the vacant lot. I had cleaned up beer cans and vodka bottles from the ditch, pulled up wintercreeper and bush honeysuckle sprouts, and watched the activity of the birds flickering in and out of the dense cane, which seemed irresistible to them— I spotted more birds than I had seen anywhere else in the neighborhood, and saw birds’ nests constructed on the cane’s lingering dead twigs. Since the plant cannot self-pollinate, there must be another genetically distinct cane patch nearby for viable seeds to be produced, or else that lineage of cane will disappear forever.
The other half of the explanation lies in the colonization of North America by Europeans. When the United States was colonized, the fertile lowland areas where river cane grew were the first areas to be settled. The plant cannot recover from being grazed by cattle, and vanished from areas used as pasture. Most devastating of all, the river cane’s Native American caretakers were violently removed from the land, and the practice of maintaining the canebrakes disappeared.
Yes, while canebrakes are a natural, wild ecosystem, they were also maintained by humans. It turns out that the canebrakes are a fascinating example of how humans can form a mutualistic relationship with nature.
River cane is a fire-dependent species. Native Americans used controlled burns to manage a variety of habitats in North America. When a canebrake was burned, the canes above ground would be consumed by the fire, but the underground rhizome system would be unharmed. New canes would rapidly sprout, growing at a rate of up to 1.5 inches per day in the abundant sunlight and nutrients left after the fire.
The human benefits of river cane are incredible—river cane was used for everything by the Cherokee and other Native American nations. Lighter and stronger than wood, American bamboo could be woven into mats and waterproof double-woven baskets, crafted into fish traps and arrows, and used as a building material. The seeds and young shoots are even edible.
The predominant European intuition holds that interfering in nature for human benefit like this would create negative effects for other life forms, but the opposite is true. Researchers tell us that canebrakes are a major habitat of some of our rarest plant species, including Venus flytraps and other endangered carnivorous plants. They are excellent nesting sites for birds. The critically endangered red wolf and Florida panther once depended on the shelter provided by canebrakes. Cane is the host plant of as many as nine moth and butterfly species. Most strikingly of all, the Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, and Bachman’s warbler, now-extinct species of bird, have all been noted as depending on canebrakes.
There is little research on canebrakes, simply because there are almost no canebrakes left to study. Biologists now consider canebrakes to be a critically endangered ecosystem, if they still exist at all—the remaining patches of river cane are rarely larger than an acre.
If almost no forests or prairies remained that were bigger than a spacious backyard, a whole ecosystem would be considered virtually extinct. This is the situation with one of the USA’s most unique, exotic ecosystems—bamboo forests that once teemed with carnivorous plants, bright parakeets, panthers and wolves. Where river cane remains, it is mostly in clumps between fences and roadsides, or shrubby bits of undergrowth in damp wooded areas, scrawny stems that can easily be mistaken at a distance for willow. These remnants are widespread throughout Kentucky, on roadsides, in ditches, at the edges of creeks. Rarely exceeding 10 feet tall, they are shadows of what the river cane used to be.
One such small patch of river cane grows on the land occupied by the Berea College Forest. In February 2023, the Forestry Outreach Center will be experimenting with transplanting river cane to the site, in hopes that it will one day become a healthy, restored canebrake. Not only would this allow people to experience North America’s lost biome, it could provide an opportunity for research into the incredible properties of river cane for preserving our planet.
A few devoted researchers have studied the few remaining patches of canebrake to investigate the properties of river cane, and their discoveries are stunning. River cane is a miracle plant for protecting waterways and filtering pollution—one study shows it reducing groundwater nitrate pollutants by 99%, with similar results for sediment and other pollutants. Along streambanks where it remains, its powerful anti-erosion capabilities are apparent; the small patch of rivercane at the Forestry Outreach Center forms an eighteen-inch shelf of thickly woven rhizomes over a flowing stream, stopping the bank from collapsing.
But that’s not all—a river cane colony, once it is strong and established, is competitive against our worst invasive species. It dominates wintercreeper and competes equally with kudzu and bush honeysuckle. Future research might include planting river cane in areas plagued by invasive species and evaluating its potential as a weapon in the fight against our most destructive invaders.
Arundinaria bamboo was once a crucial component of ecosystems in the Southeast. River cane could be described as a keystone species—a species that has disproportionate impact on the ecosystem it belongs to. Restoring a keystone species can heal parts of an ecosystem that appear unrelated to it, bringing unanticipated benefits. River cane also happens to be useful, culturally significant, and undeniably charismatic. 2023 will be an exciting year for learning about this fascinating plant and setting the stage for future restoration and research. Possibly, it could be the year where the fate of the canebrakes finally begins to turn backward.
Do you think you’ve seen river cane? Tips for distinguishing river cane from invasive bamboos can be found here. https://conservingcarolina.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/How-to-Identify-Native-Rivercane-Arundinaria-gigantea-vs.-Invasive-Asian-Bamboo.pdf If you know of a place with a possible river cane population, you can upload photos to iNaturalist to identify it and to have the observation included in the Kentucky River Cane Census, a project started by the Forestry Outreach Center to document river cane in the state: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/ky-river-cane-census
Interested in river cane restoration, either by restoring river cane to your own property, or providing transplants for the ongoing restoration at the Forestry Outreach Center? Contact Abigail Kingston with the Tiny Forest project at email@example.com and check our Facebook and website for upcoming meetings!
by Abigail Kingston
In an ecosystem, almost every organism depends on every other in some way for survival. However, the concept of symbiosis is taught to us in school like it’s a specific, situational partnerships where two organisms turn from the usual path of competing for resources or trying to eat each other and offer each other some kind of benefit, as with clown fish and sea anemones. Otherwise, ecosystems are made of organisms all looking out for their own interests, and sometimes “taking advantage of” or “utilizing” opportunities created by other organisms.
written by Abigail Kingston
In a world suffering from the effects of colonization, profit-driven destruction of natural environments, and industrialization, humans are becoming more and more alienated from the natural world.
When you think of “nature,” what do you envision?
Five-Banded Thynnid Wasp
Spotted feeding on the nectar of Rattlesnake master flowers. This species seems to be fairly uncommon in KY but it is probably just underreported.
Clubbed Mydas Fly
This is one of the largest flies in KY with wingspans of over 2 inches. This species mimics wasps so it has very few predators. This one was spotted by Berea College student Edie Jo Wakin.
Bog Lygropia Moth
Another new species added by Edie Jo Wakin. This moth was photographed during National Moth Week. As the name suggests this species lives in boggy wet areas.
Another species first added by Edie Jo, this dragonfly is a great example of a relatively common species that just doesn’t get reported often due to its small size and difficulty to photograph without a telephoto lens.
Dark Phalaenostola Moth
It may not be the prettiest moth out there but it has its charm. The larval host plant of this species is still unknown.
This is a species of tachinid fly that parasitizes butterfly and moth caterpillars. This one in particular focuses on tiger moths and skipper butterflies.
Poison Ivy Leaf-miner Moth
Many of the Leaf-miners can be identified by the “tracks” that the caterpillars leave behind while feeding inside of leaves. As you might imagine these are very tiny moths.
Hidalgo Mason Wasp
Found feeding on the nectar of Rattlesnake Master flowers. This species builds its nest in dirt banks and sometimes in the nests of other wasp species.
This is a common species but it hasn’t been documented until this month. Most likely overlooked due to its similarity to other skipper species.
Photographed by Kayla Zagray during one of our creepy critter night hikes. This one had a bad wing but it could still fly okay.
This species has been found in the Berea College Forest before however, it made its “iNat debut” this month thanks to Kayla Zagray snapping a photo and uploading it to iNaturalist.
Not only is this species a first for the project it’s also one of the first observations of this species in the state! This species normally lives around Texas and Mexico but vagrants end up in the eastern US from time to time. This one was nectaring in our pollinator garden.
This new species of Robber Fly was found hanging out on the side of the building.
Delta Flower Scarab
This beetle gets its common name from the triangle on the thorax that looks like the Greek letter delta.
Sumac Gall Aphid
Female aphids lay an egg on the bottom of a sumac leaf which induces the leaf to form a gall around the egg. The aphid hatches and reproduces asexually while still inside the gall. In late summer winged females leave the gall and establish new colonies in moss.
Secondary Screwworm Fly
The larvae infest existing wounds and can be a threat to livestock. However, they are also important decomposers of carrion so they aren’t all bad.
This is another species that was hiding in plain sight, found just a few feet off of a trail.
The larvae of this little green moth feed on Sumac and Poison Ivy.
A type of potter wasp that builds cells for their eggs that look like small pots.
Red Shouldered Bug
The species name for this bug is “haematoloma” which is Latin for blood-fringed … I guess red-shouldered is a little less threatening.
Orange-legged Furrow Bee
This species has the interesting habit of being eusocial in areas with warmer climates and at low elevations and being solitary in high elevations and areas with colder climates.
Another fairly common species that has just been overlooked due to the similarity to other species in the same family.
Dark-veined Longhorn Bee
Found pollinating one of the native sunflowers in the prairie.
Silky Striped Sweat Bee
We haven’t been able to confirm this one down to species for sure just yet. If this is the correct species it would be one of or possibly the first record in KY.
Prefers to grow in wet areas, this one was found along the new burn trail.
Another moth species found by Edie Jo during National Moth Week.
The larvae of this beetle feed on Hickory trees so it makes sense that we found it on the fence under the Hickory tree by the entrance to the trails.
Another Moth Week addition by Edie Jo.
Golden-reined Digger Wasp
The gold highlights on this wasp were stunning in the sunlight. This picture doesn’t show just how shiny this wasp was.
Spotted Thyris Moth
Spotted nectaring on Rattlesnake Master Flowers, the Larvae of this moth feed on Clematis.
This is a species of parasitoid wasp that is a parasite of many bee species… a video of one laying eggs can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcMcXH0V7Qo
It looks a lot like a wasp but it’s actually a fly.
Another member of the Tachinid flies that parasitize caterpillars.
A large wasp species that I believe is the first confirmed record in Kentucky. The species name brevipennis refers to its short wings.
Small unassuming moth that upon a closer look has a really neat pinstripe pattern.
by Jeff Hutton
Hello Astronomers! For the last two weeks I’ve shared with you some of the thrill we’ve experienced when we’ve seen eclipses of the Sun and Moon. A solar eclipse happens when the Moon passes in front of the Sun. Lunar eclipses happen when the Moon passes into the shadow of the earth. When do these things happen? Why don’t the happen more often? Want to know? Read on!
by Jeff Hutton
Hello Astronomers! In the last issue, we talked about shadows. Shadows are why we have special events like lunar and solar eclipses. Let’s look again at lunar eclipses. We know that the Earth casts a shadow out into space in the direction of the anti-solar point. Remember, that’s the point directly away from the direction of the sun.
Can we ever see evidence of Earth’s shadow besides when there is an eclipse of the moon? Yes!
by Jeff Hutton
Hello Astronomers! One of the things I love about observing the night sky is that what we see in the sky makes sense, once you apply a little thought to them. For example, think about shadows. You know, light can’t go through solid stuff like your house or your head. Let’s think about shadows.
Here’s a picture I took from the roof of my house that shows my shadow. Sunlight is blocked from reaching the ground. The shadow of my head is located at the anti-solar point .
Knowing where the anti-solar point is, helps us to understand a lot about how the Sun affects what we see in the sky. More about that in future articles.
I promised that I would talk to you about eclipses. A solar eclipse happens when the Moon’s orbit carries it to a point in space directly between the Sun and just a small spot on the Earth. The Moon makes a shadow on the Earth just a few miles wide and people like me go to a lot of trouble to get to that spot on Earth just to be in the Moon’s shadow. We love to see scenes just like this!
Here is a picture I took from just the right place and at just the right time in 2017 of the total solar eclipse. We were in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. You’re seeing the night side of the Moon exactly in front of the sun. This view was about as bright as the Full Moon.
This is the ONLY time it is safe to look toward the Sun without special glasses.
The best rule is that you should NEVER look toward the sun. You can cause permanent eye damage or be blinded for the rest of your life. There are special filters and other ways to observe the sun. When we can have in-person talks again at the FOC, I’ll tell you about some of them.
Here’s a picture taken from space at the same time as I took my picture above. Can you make out the shape of North America? The Sun was completely covered-up at the very center of the shadow shown on the Earth. The anti-solar point is at the center of the Moon’s shadow.
This diagram shows how sunlight on its way to the earth is stopped by the Moon. So the Moon casts a shadow, just like your head, the Moon and the Earth!
The other kind of eclipse is called a lunar eclipse. I took this picture in 2014. The Earth is much bigger than the Moon. So the shadow that the Moon makes on the earth is pretty small. But the Earth’s shadow is much bigger. It’s so big that the entire Moon can fit inside it! So when this happens, the whole Moon can go dark. The Earth’s the anti-solar point is at the center of its shadow.
Most of the time the Moon looks white and grey but during a lunar eclipse it turns a reddish-orange. That’s because some of the light from the Sun is bent around the Earth by its atmosphere. Did you know that the moon is about as reflective as a piece of black construction paper? Lunar eclipses can turn the Moon almost black or a light orange. More about that later.
There’s a lot to know about eclipses. Next time we’ll learn more about when to look for an eclipse and what we can expect to see!
For a printable PDF click HERE.