Date: November 2000

Subject: Arundo donax

The gramminophiles and musicians probably already knew the following, but I didn't so I am sharing some grass trivia:

An article by John Hadder in the December 2000 issue of Gardens Illustrated piqued my curiosity so I went to my copies of ornamental grass encyclopedias by Rick Darke, John Greenlee and Carole Ottesen as well as the RHS dictionary for more information about Arundo donax, the giant reed. Regarding the "giant" adjective . . . believe it. Arundo donax, reliably hardy to zone 6, will grow from a two-gallon pot to 10 feet tall in a season in good as well as not so good soil.

Ottesen suggests that it may have been the first grass brought to the New World from Europe. The culprits were Spanish mission fathers who fashioned it into animal pens, baskets and windbreaks in California. Greenlee talks about Arundo donax being the bamboo of the New World because it is so tolerant of sun, heat and drought and indicated that it was used for all the uses Ottesen mentioned as well as construction, animal pens, cages and roof thatching. He also mentioned that it has escaped and is now labeled as a noxious weed in California and several southern states. Fortunately, perhaps, it only flowers and sets seed reliably in warm, moist areas but rarely in drier or cooler regions.

Ornamentally, gardeners creating in large spaces like Edith Eddelman in the JC Raulston Arboretum perennial border use it to "break the space so not everything is visible at once". If you dare use this warm season grower, transplant it in the spring rather than fall in cooler parts of the state. It is not listed as a noxious weed in NC.

The focus of Hodders' article was music. Both Darke and Greenlee mention that Arundo donax has long been a source of the best reeds for clarinets, oboes, bassoons, saxophones and even bagpipes. Since at least 5000 BC it has been used for pan pipes and similar tubular instruments in its native area near the Mediterranean. By 3000 BC musicians in Egypt and Mesopotamia had discovered that if the walls of the cane were treated properly they produce the sounds so familiar in reed instruments.

Arundo donax is grown commercially in plantations in the south of France where it is harvested, cured and shipped to those who shave them into the thin reeds used by musicians. I found particularly interesting that commercial growers have selected and will only use canes with a diameter of at least 2.5-cm for a clarinet reed while a 2.85-cm cane is needed for an alto saxophone reed. Talk about specialization! Hodder also mentioned that no French grower actually makes the finished reeds themselves but ships them to craftsmen overseas (California) who create the reeds. The leftover French "cull" canes that are unsuitable for musical reeds are made into sheeting, sunscreens, fencing and room partitions which are sold all over the world.

Therefore, Arundo donax is a valuable ornamental grass in some gardens, proposed for commercial production of biomass in Florida, an invasive exotic pest in California, while it is an important export for the French economy. Draw your own conclusions.

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