Winter Garden Workhorse: Switchcane

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Winter Garden Workhorse: Switchcane

Categories: Blog, Garden Guru

Switchcane (Arundinaria gigantea) is the only species of bamboo native to Missouri & Kansas and is a very underutilized evergreen shrub. Yes. this grass has woody perennial stems so is classified as a shrub! It is such a garden workhorse: providing screening year round in full sun or shade.

Here’s an image of Switchcane at Powell Gardens near the entrance gatehouse (which you can see in the background).  Its purpose here is to screen the parking spots for the employee or employees working in the gatehouse and it fulfills its purpose well!  Switchcane does spread by underground stems (rhizomes) like many running bamboos and creates a thicket.

One horticultural practice of switchcane is seldom done: you can cut the new canes in spring to any desired height and they will stay that tall.  That’s why the plants are short and dense in the pictures above.  Switchcane will easily grow 6 to 8 feet in our climate but is trimmed to around 4 feet in height here.  It’s running nature is not overwhelming and limited to springtime so you won’t be bamboozled by it.  It is rather easy to mow off any wayward stems.  It can be a nuisance if it is allowed to invade other prized shrubs or perennials so be sure to provide a barrier or trench where you can cut any invaders off at the pass.

I took this picture of Switchcane from our Rock & Waterfall Garden where we do not trim the stems but allow them to grow their full, graceful length.

A few steps back and you can see how we use it as a backdrop screen in that wonderful shade garden.  It hides the maintenance area which is behind the garden — I bet almost no visitors ever notice because this native plant just fits in so well and creates a natural screen, even in full shade.  We do not trim the stems here and allow them to be long and graceful and most are in the 6 to 8 foot range but it can grow much larger 12 to 15 feet in rich soils in a milder climate.

Powell Gardens has several switchcane plantings on its grounds, all from different sources, including Missouri, Kentucky and Arkansas.  It is best to use these more northerly strains here.  Other attributes of the plant include that if you are lucky enough for it to flower; it does produce an edible grain formerly used by Native Americans and is relished by wildlife.  The whole plant also doesn’t die off after flowering as with some bamboos.  The evergreen thickets these plants create are also unsurpassed cover for wildlife.   It’s a great choice for planting near bird feeders so birds can quickly find cover from predators.  Once vast thickets of this plant covered major floodplains of the South — known as canebrakes.  They were the habitat required for the now extinct Bachman’s Warbler and their remnants are still the favorite habitat for the rare Swainson’s Warbler which is still found in southern Missouri.