Arundo Donax

The scientific name for reed cane is Arundo donax L. and commonly known as Giant Reed plant. It is found on all continents and has two distinct varieties. One variety is called Arundo donax Variegata, which is not suitable for reed cane. It is my opinion that there is some genetic variation between plants worldwide. One plant dictionary indicates a sub-variety in France which has been the traditional source of reed cane.

Bassoon cane is typically taken from tubes of Arundo donax measuring 24-25mm in diameter (the same diameter as used for clarinet cane). Contrabassoon cane uses the largest diameters: 26mm and larger. Saxophone reeds range from 24mm for soprano and up to the largest diameter for bass sax. Reed cane is harvested in the winter of its second year of growth. This is necessary for it to obtain ‘woodiness’ and density. It is also necessary that the cane is carefully dried and later sun cured.

Oboe cane typically is 10-11mm, English horn 11-12mm, and diameters between the extremes are found in other double reed instruments including Renaissance instruments, bagpipes, shawms, etc.

Arundo donax typically grows near rivers and streams and is considered a nuisance weed in California and other locations in the United States. It has traditionally been used by farmers as a windbreak hence the term ‘canebreak’.

Arundo donax for reeds can be harvested in the wild as is common for some California reed makers and was planted around the state in the early 20th century by an Italian woodwind musician (source: Don Christlieb). It is also commonly planted for erosion control as was the case in the Sacramento River delta (cane harvested by boat). Cane is also farmed for reed cane in locations around the world.

For more information, see the Wikipedia article on Arundo donax.

Harvesting and curing Arundo donax for reed cane

Harvesting of reed cane takes place in the wild in many places in the world.

Here’s some information and advice for a good harvest that I gave to David Richmond.

I did a research project on my own about when to harvest cane after reading in the IDRS that cane is harvested by the moon phase. I did this over several years harvesting cane at different times to see which worked best The interview was with Maurice Allard in the 80’s who didn’t say what moon phase, just that it was very important and a secret. I read during research that timber harvested at a certain phase of the moon had excess pitch oozing out. So, of course, I made assumptions that were wrong. I believed that cane should be harvested like timber when the pitch is down. Wrong.

Harvest cane at the new moon. Pitch is up because the moon is out during the day, and with that excess moisture in there the cane dries out more slowly and discourages shrinkage. But the cane should be harvested when its first year growth leaves are drooping in the dormant stage. Soil temps should be in the 30s for best results. Usually Dec-to early February. After that cane starts up again. Harvest only second year growth, those with branches. First year growth is not woody enough. For bassoon cane select diameters of 24-26 millimeters or approximately 1 inch in diameter. Cane from the bottom 6 feet of the pole is more stable and dense than that from the top. The cane poles can be 18-20 in height.

Cane can be left outdoors to dry out as long as it doesn’t freeze. If it dries quickly in a heated indoor location it could shrink too fast. If left outdoors, it could mildew if the air is too humid though. Chinese cane that is available in the U.S. market apparently is harvested in one location and air dried outdoors in another drier location. The 80 acre Rico Reeds “plantation” I visited in California had tall metal buildings where they stack up the cane and get the air out with exhaust fans. During the summer when things heated up they cooked a bit in there. The final part of the process is heat and sunshine to get the cane to push some of the waxy substance to the surface and tune from greenish to gold. I had good luck with putting the cane in the back window of the car. Works okay up on a roof too. Extra heat seems to help push the wax to the surface.

In France the poles of second year growth are stacked around a pole to create a teepee effect, over them a layer of first year growth of unusable diameters protects them from rain. Air circulation around the harvest poles is essential to prevent mold and mildew. They may or may not put the cane into the sun during the first summer. Poles are stacked but away from direct sunlight. Some sun cure the first summer and stack for more drying into the second summer.

Second choice harvest time is at night when the moon is in the sky. I found a reference to that somewhere later after I had done my tests, but I think the new moon harvest is best.

Now you know more than most bassoonists on how to deal with cane harvesting, except for a few guys in California, like Bob Stevens who took me to the Rico and whose plants I’ve been growing out at the family farm in Yamhill county. Cane in front yard is from him too, and originally brought over from France as cane with the right DNA. Ha. Bob’s cane was better than Ricos because he had a some better ideas on irrigation, etc. You are harvesting cane in Texas. Was it planted there by some Johnny Appleseed like California or is it native to that area? Have you ever heard of Prestini USA in Nogales, AZ? Their cane may have come out of Mexico. Somewhat soft but nice tone color. There are several different techniques for the sun/heat curing depending on the climate. There’s a photo of Prestini with tubes of cane hanging on ropes.

By the way, the cane buyer for Rico Reeds visited my cane field and told me some good stories. He said my cane looked just like VanDoren’s! Little did he know where I got it, and the soils and climate must have made it look they way it does. Just like wine grapes….location, location, location. The best cane I’ve seen growing is in southern Oregon in Ashland. Beautiful looking plants and nice tone color in the finished reed. I supplied the cane for that plot.

<Recently added…>

At this point I don’t know of any other growers of cane for reeds.

I know that Michael O’Donovan who recently retired as the top studio bassoonist in L.A. Harvested bassoon cane in southern California near L.A. He took it from higher elevation where there would be some possibility of lower winter temps.  I don’t see why you couldn’t take oboe diameter cane from the same areas. I’ve seen some really nice looking cane floating in the harbor at Long Beach after some gully washer rain events. Just happened to be in town for a conference.

An oboist who used to live near Sacramento harvested cane in the Sacramento river delta. I was there and saw the cane.  They harvested by boat.  I think it was Niel Tatman who is now in Arizona. Lawrence Rhodes, bassoonist is harvesting cane from the same location these days. He sells reeds to Forrests and is happy with the cane from the delta.

I’ve taken cane as far north as Redding.  I would warn you that growing cane in Oregon can be trouble with the winter chill and freeze knocking out the 2nd year growth.  So I would not recommend trying growing it in Oregon.  While the cane in Ashland is not always available due to crop failure, its quality is good due to the soil with volcanic elements, silica, etc.  And it is very hot in the summer supporting good strong growth.  But even what would seem to be a good location can produce bad cane due to the soil.

Rico Reeds had a huge cane growing operation outside of Healdsburg CA.  I was taken there by reed maker Bob Stevens, La Voz reeds, reeds made for Fox, etc.  The rhizomes came from the Var in France.  They could not get decent cane from that area, probably the soil.  I got some of those rhizomes, as Bob was cleaning out his own cane growing area near his home.
>Rico mixed in this second rate cane into their boxes cheapest clarinet reed offerings, probably the 1 1/2 and 2s.  They were at that point also (and may still) be getting good cane from Mexico but their primo stuff is from Argentina.  They gave up on growing cane near Healdsburg many years ago and now it is logically better planted with grapes.

Oboe cane cane can be harvested in the few years of transplanting before rhizomes and roots are fully developed  or best to find rhizomes that “push” primarily smaller diameter cane.

I hope this helps you find what you are looking to do?  Having grown and tended cane for many years, I can’t recommend it.  It is back breaking work to harvest and clean out your rows and requires LOTS of water if you are farming it.

<Recent Inquiry>

I’ve become interested in the process of growing cane, and I have a few questions about how I might approach doing it myself despite restrictions.

Would it be possible to grow small batches of reed cane from home?

Can it be grown indoors? Do I need to do it outdoors?

Would I need to be in the right climate or could I simulate it myself affordably?

Do you know where I can find directions on the process of growing, harvesting, curing and sorting? I am an oboist so I’m not sure how much of the information on this website applies to oboe cane.

If you live in the proper climate you can grow viable cane.  Where do you live?  If you live in an area where the temperature goes well below freezing in winter you cannot grow cane.  But it is necessary for the soil temperature in winter to drop into the 30 to low 40 degree range to stop first year growth.

The nature of Arundo is to grow large diameter cane, but newly planted cane rhizomes with push up small diameters for a while, and then as the rhizomes mature push larger diameters.  Some select rhizomes will push more smaller diameters even after the rhizomes mature.  The less ground water available stunts the growth of the plant producing small diameters while the natural habitat for the plant is next to or in water.  This habitat will result in the larger diameters needed for bassoon, clarinet and sax 25 millimeters and up while oboe reed diameters run 10-11 millimeters.

I was able to grow cane in my front yard in Portland, OR.  But I often lost the second year growth which is essential to get the woodiness needed prior to harvest in the winter of the second year.  Cane must have a second year where the branches come out.  My cane was lost due to freezing temperatures in my case that often came in April to May or cold dry wind in single digits which zapped the second year growth at the buds for branches in the second year .  Cane I planted in other areas of western Oregon did fine.  The best in southern Oregon where it is hotter in summer.  Cane does well from Redding, CA and south and west of the mountains.  The climate further south does not freeze out the buds.  Cane from the foothills above Los Angeles cools down enough to produce viable reed cane.

I’ve tried growing indoors, and others have thought about doing this in controlled greenhouse environments.  I don’t see it working out.  It would require too much equipment, and vertical space to be commercially viable, but it is possible.  One of the factors in cane and tone wood for instruments is the wood needs to flex from the wind.  A wind machine?.But it would be great to have some uniformity of cane grown under controlled conditions.

I hope this helps with your quest.