Perennial canes (‘Arundo donax’), are also musical canes

Perennial canes (‘Arundo donax’), are also musical canes
2023. Drying canes in Puebla de Hijar (Teruel). Photo: Miguel Ángel Nava and Charo Piñango © Miguel Ángel Nava y Charo Piñango

Perennial canes (‘Arundo donax’), are also musical canes

Traditionally, canes have been used for everything, or nearly everything, as it is a material near at hand, easy to work with, light but with strong enough for use in building, or as a vegetable fibre for making baskets or other types of braiding.

Perhaps one of the least known uses of this plant from the Poaceae family is the making of all kinds of musical instruments, both wind and idiophones (vibrating instruments).

The municipality of La Puebla de Hijar in the region of Bajo Martín (river Martín) in the province of Teruel holds a seminar every two years based around the «musical cane», to highlight the versatility and uses of this common and popular plant. Canes, which we usually see in the wild, takes centre stage in this locality to the extent that it is grown, as Santiago shows us in the photo.

During these seminars, many experiences are made known about the use of canes and their handiness for creating musical objects: instruments with a cane support, reeds for both folk and orchestral instruments, small curiosities and toys, made to produce sounds that imitate noises or animals.

Canes, as vegetable supports, date back to the origins of human beings, and have accompanied them from the Far East to the far-flung corners of the American continent, leaving their mark in Mediterranean cultures, as can be seen in the iconography of many vases, mosaics, sculptures and instruments which need the musician´s breath to generate sound; canes are also the principle behind the discovery of pitch and intensity flowing through this vegetable matter. There are many instruments made from canes,  the «ney» (the reed) of Arab cultures, the «launnedas» on the island of Sardinia or the «xeremies» in Ibiza.

Cane plantations are made up of giant grass, whose use dates back over 5,000 years, and they are mentioned in the Bible. A light material which is essential for building: paling, fences, hedges, roofing or shingle under tiles. In the past, canes were an important traditional industry in the southeast, used –as is known- for fishing rods and also in split-cane basket-making from Murcia and Almeria to Cadiz or Huelva. Canes were also an important source of cellulose.

The plant varies greatly in terms of size and the quality of its stems and growth. Top quality selected varieties are grown on the coast of Girona to make pipes for clarinets and shawms, with the commercial name «caña de España» («Spanish cane»).

There are two species of Arundo in Spain and Europe, but the best known, and the one we are talking about, is A. donax, which has existed in the Mediterranean for a long time (archaeophyte) and whose suggested origins are in Taiwan.

Nowadays it can be found in many tropical, sub-tropical and temperate countries and has been officially declared as a cosmopolitan invasive species which sometimes displaces the natural vegetation of wetlands and watercourses, which raises environmental doubts and problems, although this does not detract from the benefits it has given and still gives to human beings.

The other species, and this one is native, is Arundo plinii or taray cane, from the Levant and Balearic Islands. Small cane plants can be confused with reeds (Phragmites australis), another large and cosmopolitan gramineous (grass) plant, which has also many traditional uses.

There are witness accounts in the bibliography of the use of cane sprouts (A. donax) as a foodstuff, like bamboo, and also of the use of the rhizome as a diuretic or sudoriferous treatment, although they apparently contain some –little-studied- toxic compound, so it should not, in principle, be used until more research is carried out.