Kathy Mathews, assistant professor of biology (third from right), helps WCU students Adam Griffith, Katie McDowell and Sharhonda Bell (left to right) study the physical characteristics of rivercane stands.
The grant, which is administered through the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources grant-making initiative, funds a project to explore the ecology of the 12- to 16-foot tall grass.
The program brings together faculty who have expertise in genetics, botany, geochemistry, remote sensing, sedimentology and ecology restoration to research how and where new stands could be planted successfully.
Rivercane is an important cultural resource for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. It is used for basket making, blowguns and mats, among other goods.
It is also important as a habitat for birds, butterflies and other species. Recently, the North Carolina Department of Transportation recognized the plant’s importance for erosion control on riverbanks.
Rivercane used to be plentiful – everywhere – in what is now Western North Carolina when Europeans first arrived, but settlement and conversion to farmland played a role in its depletion, said Adam Griffith, graduate student in biology, who co-authored a paper to be presented at the October Geological Society of America meeting.
"It’s not Asian bamboo. It is not kudzu," said Rob Young, associate professor of geology. "There’s a strong misconception that rivercane is an invasive species. It’s a native plant that belongs here. If it were aggressive, it would not be gone."
An initial $40,000 planning grant last year enabled WCU students and faculty to locate about 40 stands of rivercane in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. Students such as Katie McDowell from Franklin recorded measurements at rivercane stands to help decipher the sets of physical conditions that produce the best sets of rivercane for artisans. They measured such qualities as height, density and variety of plants in the area.
"A lot of the time, the rivercane is in a big field of rose and honeysuckle," said McDowell, who will present at the GSA meeting in Philadelphia. "Those plants take over. They are the first things to grow in."
Meanwhile, an advisory board of Cherokee artisans will help convey what types of rivercane growth are best suited for the baskets and crafts they make.
"We think rivercane restoration is a high priority for the Eastern Band," Young said. "It’s nice for WCU to be able to provide that kind of service.”
For more information, contact Rob Young at (828) 227-3822.