A history of a musical weed that does double duty as a reed

Quick, what’s the most important weed in the history of music? And no, I know what you are thinking. I’m not talking about the kind of ‘weed’ that got Louis Armstrong hauled away in handcuffs, or the same fragrant herb that caused a boatload of trouble – or rather ‘potload’ of trouble – for Paul McCartney after customs officials demanded that he hand over his suitcase in exchange for nine days of rest and relaxation in a Japanese jail cell.

PHOTOS: Steven Chadwick
PHOTOS: Steven Chadwick

The weed I am referring to is called Arundo donax (also known as Giant cane), a sturdy hollow-stemmed perennial grass with an appearance that varies between a corn plant we see in Ontario fields and a tall, willowy bamboo. And although it is the plant generally accepted to have contributed more to the evolution and development of music than any other on earth, it does come with a bit of an identity crisis. It is both vilified by the US Department of Agriculture as one of the most serious weedy threats to the wetlands and wildlife of California and the Southern United States, and at the same time is admired in Toronto parks and gardens as a well-behaved ornamental. In fact, it’s so commonly planted these days, you may have even brushed up against it in Kew Gardens or noticed a big cream coloured clump near the bottom of Southwood Drive as you were strolling down to the Beaches Jazz festival. hort-Arundo donax leaf detail

Native to temperate areas of Asia, India and the Mediterranean, its musical heritage dates back thousands of years when the plant was used by craftsmen to make pan flutes, ancient Egyptian neys and other primitive wind-powered instruments. As woodwind instruments became more complex, it was discovered that the high silica content of Arundo donax, combined with its moisture retentive capability and durability of the sturdy hollow stem made it the only material suited for the construction of reeds – the shaved and shaped pieces of cane that vibrate to produce a reed instrument’s distinctive tone. For several centuries Arundo donax was the essential ingredient responsible for the invention and development of everything from early bagpipes and bassoons to modern clarinets and saxophones. It is the weed that created the pipers wail as clansmen scared the kilts off their opponents in Scottish skirmishes and later served as the power plant for the soaring solos of Bechet, Parker and Coltrane. And without Arundo donax, the only sound  coming out of Kenny G’s soprano saxophone would be the rush of hot air – which some music aficionados would consider preferable to what is heard on his recordings.

The plant has even been immortalized in an operetta created for children by Canada’s Tafelmusik which has become a popular and entertaining part of Toronto’s educational curriculum. Ask any group of schoolchildren about Arundo donax and quite a few may hold up their hand to tell you the tale of two youngsters sent on a musical adventure through history by a Queen whose country’s instruments and music have been silenced after running out of their supply of this musical plant.

Arundo donax earned its weedy reputation after being imported to California by Spanish and French settlers during the land rush of the 1800’s where its strong stems and water repellent foliage were used as a roofing material for their thatched huts and livestock pens. The Californian pioneers also planted Arundo in great abundance along rivers and streams after discovering its thick and rapidly multiplying rhizomes were very effective in protecting farmland from erosion and stabilizing irrigation channels. However, without natural predators it became a little too comfortable in its laid back California lifestyle and the balmy climate reminiscent of its Mediterranean homeland. The aggressive moisture-loving plant soon naturalized and began heading east, putting down roots in the warmer wetlands of the southern United States where today it continues to overrun bird and wildlife habitats and invade large tracts of agricultural land.

We don’t have to worry about the plant running amok here in Ontario though, since our cold winter climate keeps it firmly in check.  And it’s only the white variegated version of Arundo donax that is planted, rather than that scruffy green-leaved variety that is currently ransacking the southern states. Even so, the plant grows rapidly and can reach a towering height of three to five metres during our growing season with elegant white foliage and fine green lines down the centre of the leaves which, if you use your imagination – and maybe put your eyes out of focus a little bit – look remarkably like the grooves on a vinyl record (see below). In Toronto it is mainly treated as an annual, planted at the back of a border or in a pot but it will easily survive zone 6  as a die back perennial and is prominent in many public gardens around the city. There are seasonal plantings in the Kew gardens round bed, a few in planters near the bowling greens at the boardwalk and a perennial grouping in the grass display at Rosetta McClain. Ironically, for a ‘weed’ that has contributed so much to the evolution of modern woodwind instruments and sounds, there must be a rule of ‘no horn tootin’ or ‘saxophone playin’ at the Music garden on Queen’s Quay  because at that location, Arundo donax is conspicuously absent.

 

Steven Chadwick is a professional gardener/ horticulturist, and longtime  Beach resident


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