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A Study in River Cane and Other Bamboo
Harvesting and Processing River Cane for Weaving

River cane is a member of the grass family, the Poaceae (=Gramineae) and the grasses have always been a primary source of our energy and nitrogen. River cane grows along the banks of streams in the southern part of the United States. Cane is the oldest of the Southern tribe basket materials that is known. Salt mines preserved remnants of cane double weave mats. To some it is also the most difficult of materials to prepare.

Cane and the other bamboo genera are members of a single tribe: Bambusea, within the subfamily Bambusoidee. Bamboo genus: Arundinaria
River Cane Species:
Basketry of the Southeastern Indian, the chapter Cane: Its Characteristics and Identification in Baskets, is written by James R. Estes and Rahmona A. Thompson. It is a comprehensive study of cane. They write that the only native species of bamboo in the continental United States is Arundinaria gigantea with three inclusive subspecies:

Arundinaria gigantea ssp. gigantea (giant cane) is a robust form primarily of the Mississippi River Valley, the Appalachian Ozarkian Uplands, and the Gulf Coastal Plain. Russell Stevens of the Noble Foundation wrote me regarding giant cane. He said, "There is a pretty good line drawing of giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea) in North American Range Plants by Steve Hatch. It does not indicate a range that far west for giant cane. A good way to tell if it is giant cane is to look at the venation in the leaf. Along with the parallel veins, upon close examination it will have small cross veins connecting the parallel veins together, forming a blocky sort of pattern. The only other plant that may have look similar is common reed (Phragmites australis). It is native to the coastal regions of Texas but has been introduced to ponds, etc. in this area. This area meaning in Oklahoma.

Arundinaria macrosperma (no common name) is the tallest of the subspecies. It is morphologically intermediate between giant and switch cane and may be the result of intertaxon hybridization. The population occurs throughout the region where giant cane and switch cane come in close contact, and often individuals of this subspecies occur intermixed within populations of the other two. Arundinaria ssp. tecta. (Switch cane) is shorter and has air canals in the rhizome. These canals are lacking in the giant cane. Switch cane occurs primarily along the Atlantic Seaboard south of the Mason-Dixon Line with occasional populations along the Gulf Coast.

Growing Habits of River Cane:
River cane grows like other bamboo. New cane sprouts up from underground runners. Every seven years the cane that grows in the south puts out a head that looks like rice or wheat. Indians once used the grain in food preparation. When cane shoots up it never gets larger in diameter, like trees, it only grows up. It grows from joint to joint. It has a cornhusk-like covering, which protects the new limbs and leaves. When it is about eight feet or taller, it is ready to harvest. Cane ready to harvest has a yellow cast to the green stem but not the juicy grass green of cane that is too young.

The south had cane islands and many rivers where it grew along the banks. Sometimes in the canebrake, the canes grew so close together you couldn't pass between them. Often American lumbering operations and farming destroyed the sites where the cane grew. Previously the lands over which they roamed were given to colonists as French, English and Spanish land grants.

Harvesting River Cane:
Camps: according to Thomas A. Colvin in Cane and Palmetto Basketry, in the old days, the Choctaws camped at the site of the raw material used in the making of their baskets. They stayed at these camps for the duration of the cutting, splitting, peeling, stripping, trimming, and drying of the strips they called straws. Any Indian could use these camps. In Adair's History of the American Indian, he wrote the Cherokee "divide large swamp canes into long, thin, narrow splinters, which they dye."

Tools: machete, bush knife, cane knife or my favorite a folding saw for cutting cane; strong pocket knife for peeling or stripping the limbs and leaves (use one where the blade will not fold back onto your skin!). Use a pocketknife to trim the straws. Select large canes about the size of the thumb that are at least two years old. It is stronger and not as green as the younger stalks. Older cane will have an abundance of foliage at the top. Cut the foliage off, as it is useless.

? Processing River Cane:
You can hand split more than four straws from a large cane. After the cane is split, the underlying plant tissue must be stripped away from the outer "skin" of the sections which are afterwards called "straws." Each straw is trimmed vertically to make the widths even. The straws are never stored before stripping and trimming. After these thin pliable straws are dried, they are ready for use, or storage. Thomas A. Colvin reported that in the old days the dried straws were rolled into balls. They were left outside overnight before use, to "open up" or flatten out. Rodney Leftwich in The Arts and Crafts of the Cherokee explains the process in simpler terms. He writes that you split the large part of the cane into four pieces. Holding the pole in your left hand, draw the knife with your right hand to split the cane in half lengthwise. (Cutting only where the split crossed a joint, the motion of the knife was more of a controlled twisting under the splint.) Each half is split again to make four pieces from each cane. Leftwich writes under a photograph showing cane splitting that each quartered piece is split lengthwise to remove the outer surface, which is part of the basketry. What he means is that you now peel the quartered pieces. Using your fingers or a knife, peel off the shiny outer surface of the cane. This is the part used in basketry. Discard the coarse inner fiber of the cane. Trim the cane splints along each edge to make them uniform width. Scrape the inner side of the shiny splint for uniform thickness. If your cane is the cut at the correct time of the year and other conditions are right, you should not have to cut the outer skin away from the cane as shown in many diagrams. It should be necessary to cut only at the joints. Between the joints the outer skin is lifted up and pulled away from the cane. If the cane is cut between joints, you can peel the outer skin with your fingers or teeth by holding the end of the cane between your teeth or under the chin.

Roger Cain, Oklahoma award winning artist, said "the best time to get cane is in the winter, but anytime is good as long as the cane is not growing at the time of harvest. As far as crushing cane to get doesn't work and plus it's a waste of material. Every time I work with river cane, I am amazed at our ancestors for being able to work it without steel." Roger also said that he does not boil the cane anymore. He splits and peels it in one day. "It is very labor intensive!" In my opinion Roger knows more about harvesting and processing river cane growing in Oklahoma than anyone I have talked with. His wife, Shawna, weaves beautiful award winning river cane baskets and mats.

From Weaving Wildly: Mats and Baskets the Choctaw Way by Mary Lou Stahl the process of peeling is described: "with the help of a very big sharp knife, the outer layer is peeled off these quarter lengths of cane by inserting the knife blade and drawing it steadily down the cane toward the person. This takes skill and strength. The object is to obtain a strong, flexible strip of even thickness. The sides are trimmed for a uniform width and the strips are scraped on the inner surface to reduce thickness making them more flexible." Judith Olney wrote that Claude said he boiled the cane he used as a rim. Boiling he said makes the cane stronger.

Weather Conditions: I have been told or read different stories. Let the cane dry some and strip it the same day. One Cherokee elder woman said to boil cane before peeling it. Do not boil it per Roger Cain's advice. Peel cane when the weather is cool. Collect cane in the winter if you are in the southeast because in the summer the surface is dry and brittle. Claude Medford said he faced the east when peeling the cane. In very dry weather water the cane if you cannot peel it the same day. From my experience with river cane harvested in Oklahoma, it is essential to split and peel cane the same day you harvest the cane. The easiest way is to camp where you are harvesting the cane and do not cut more than you can physically split and peel. It will be hard to peel long strips after one day of even keeping the cane immersed in water. I have successfully scraped the inside of the cane after it was split for a week. If I peeled the outer layer, it broke at the joints but scraping works well as long as you are careful around the joints.

Choctaw River Cane Splitter: Drive an upright stake of stout green cane into deep ground so that about 2 1/2 feet of the cane pole are above the ground. The top of the cane to be split is cut criss cross, down to the middle or just past the first joint. Use a butcher or flint knife to cut in one direction and then again at 90 degrees to the first cut. The cuts are about an inch or two in length, just enough so that the quartered end could be adjusted. A shorter piece of cane ten to twelve inches long is passed into one of these cross cuts on the "pusher" side of the stake and then placed horizontally against the stake. Another way of saying this is a smaller piece of cane is fixed at 90 degrees to the upright and placed so that half of the cane passed above it and half below.) The stake itself is placed into the other cross cut, and as the cane is pushed through, it falls into four divided lengths, on the far side of the stake. Sharply jab the cane pole to push against the upright cane. The cane should split along the grain between joints. Cane can be split as fast as it can be pushed through. Another way of saying this is from Weaving Wildly: Mats and Baskets the Choctaw Way by Mary Lou Stahl. "After the cane stalks are cut and brought back, a cross shaped warp is driven into the ground. Two lengthwise slits are made in the cane stalk, dividing the stem into quarters. These four parts of the stem were arranged around the cross- shaped warp and the weaver holds the stake with one hand and pushes the cane against it with the other hand. An experienced person can swiftly divide the stalk of cane into four equal lengths." Another way of splitting - select cane an inch or more in diameter and split by twisting in the hands and quartering it with a sharp blow across the thigh or knee.

Splitting Asian Bamboo Stalks: The Asia Society web page gives the following information: the actual training in bamboo basketry begins by learning when to harvest the material. This requires a sensitivity to the "best" bamboo, that is, bamboo with the right flexibility and texture (usually three to four years old). The best time to harvest is in autumn, when there is less insect infestation and less moisture to cause mildew. The cut stalk is then either heated over a charcoal or gas fire to burn off excess oil or boiled in an alkaline solution. The bamboo is cleaned with cordage or water mixed with rice chaff and cured under sunlight to keep it insect repellent and to bring out an attractive yellow color. The stalk of bamboo is finally cut into the desired length of approximately three feet, and the basket maker begins the time-consuming and laborious process of splitting and stripping. In the book Basketry, we are told to use a slender hollow stalk less than 5/8" in diameter and over 7' high. Bamboo is not cut but split along the grain. The knife, mostly used as a wedge, is needed only to make the initial cut at the bottom and to cut through the joints. Scrape the sheaths lightly with the edge of a knife. Use a knife to split the stalk in half from the bottom up. Protect your lap and your left hand with pieces of leather. Rest your right thumb and forefinger on opposite sides of the stalk just in front of the blade. This helps prevent the blade from suddenly hitting your left hand when the stalk splits further than expected. When you come to a joint, press the stalk against your right knee and try to twist the blade clockwise while you twist the stalk counterclockwise with your left hand. Bending the blade toward the stalk as you twist will also make splitting easier. When the stalk has been split, place the shiny outside of the stalk on your knee, and lay the knife with its cutting edge at a slight angle of about 25 degrees on the stalk. Pull the split toward you. Scrape the inner part of the shiny peel until the splint is the required thickness. Basketry, Hisako Sekijima Splitting is described in a different way in the Asia Society web page: splitting is done by repeatedly cutting down the wall of the bamboo stalk vertically--bamboo fibers run in that direction from top to bottom. Stripping further thins down each strip parallel to its outer surface. This work is done with a few medium-size knives. The dexterity of a maker rather than the quality of the tools is the deciding factor for the mastery of this process. Many spend considerable time in training to achieve strips as straight as possible and the correct width and thickness for a particular basket. A master basket maker might produce a half dozen strips as thin as a millimeter in half an hour Hisako Sekijima states that bamboo frequently used in Japanese basket weaving is shinodake, a small type of bamboo belonging to the genus . Medake and madake are also widely used in Japan. Madake, of the genus Phyllostachys, is the a larger type of bamboo which sheds its sheaths in the growning season. He advises collecting bamboo at the beginning of winter and storing whole or in coiled splits.

Bamboo poles and splits are imported by Royalwood, Ltd. A contributer to the basketry site on replied to my comment that the Asian bamboo does not make a 95 degree angle without cracking. She said to wet the bamboo and heat the part you are going to bend over with the tip of an iron. I would try steaming the bamboo too as steaming helps to bend wood splints and barks.

Arundinaria Gigantea Photos|

Gigantea Cane Brake Photos|

Atecta Switch Cane Photos|

Indian Weaving Group |

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Southeastern Indian Baskets|

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