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A vanishing native plant 

MY FIRST FISHING ROD was a cane pole cut from a canebrake not far from where I grew up. As a boy, I was sometimes sent to look for a newborn calf in one of the two canebrakes bordering streams on the farm. Most of the native cane was only 7 or 8 feet tall, but some grew to 12 feet or more. Not until years later would I learn about the rich history of canebrakes in Kentucky.

Except for imported—and much larger and more invasive—Asian bamboo, nearly all the cane seen in Kentucky has not been planted, but is a remnant of cane that has been in the same area for 250 years and beyond, says botanist Julian Campbell, one of Kentucky’s foremost authorities on native plants. “What we now call the Bluegrass Region was the land of cane and (buffalo) clover,” he says. He hopes what little cane survives across Kentucky can be preserved where development and cultivation have not reached.

Pioneer cartographer and historian John Filson, on his 1784 map of Kentucky, noted “fine cane” along Elkhorn Creek in what now is Scott County, at Blue Licks salt springs near present day Mayslick, in the region around Bardstown and in the area now known as Cane Ridge in Bourbon County.

Two centuries later, in 1985, Campbell’s 93-page summary, Land of Cane and Clover, recounts eyewitness descriptions from early botanists and historians of “rich cane woods” and other Kentucky plant life observed during the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The great Cane Ridge canebrake was said to have extended, unbroken and about a mile wide, a distance of 20 miles from eastern Bourbon County toward “the little mountain,” (now Mount Sterling in neighboring Montgomery County).

From Campbell’s summary: “Where Georgetown is was all a canebrake,” and around the present-day city of Versailles, in Woodford County, one “couldn’t find 10 acres of uncleared land that was not cane.” Canebrakes covered the site of Winchester and nearly half the area around Lexington. They stretched for miles across Garrard, Madison and Mercer counties. The town of Burgin in eastern Mercer County was known as Cane Run in pioneer days, owing to its location at the head of the Cane Run branch of Dix River. 

Howard “Buddy” Howells of Harrodsburg, who attended the former Shakertown Elementary School near Burgin, remembers a cane thicket that bordered the playground where softball was played during recess.

“If a fly ball landed in there,” he told me, “a runner could circle the bases twice before you could find it.”

Canebrakes provided forage and cover for bison herds and other wildlife, and Campbell says evidence of cane foraging has been found by archaeologists in the teeth of mastodons. Native tribes used cane in building village structures, watercraft, arrows and spears, baskets, fish traps, furniture, pipe stems, personal adornments and musical instruments. Pioneers used it for weaving utensils and chair bottoms. And many used it, as I did, for a fishing pole.

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