Known in Spanish as caña brava, wild cane (also known as “arrow cane”) is an herbaceous plant associated with watercourses and wetland areas and widely distributed throughout the Americas, from the West Indies to northern Chile and Argentina. In Peru, it occurs naturally on the coast, the western foothills of the Andes, and in the Amazon basin, where it is found in the regions of Amazonas, Junín, Loreto and Madre de Dios, where our own Tambopata Ecolodge is located. On Peru’s desert coast, it is found in abundance along irrigation channels and in wetland ecosystems.
In common with many other plants of the Amazon basin, wild cane (Gynerium sagittatum) is remarkable for its sheer scale and extraordinary abundance. It colonizes new sites through the wind distribution of its seeds. It then creates vast colonies, often occupying several kilometers of riverbank, by spreading its horizontal runners or rhizomes out from the parent plant, both above and below the ground surface.
A member of the grass family, wild cane is a large, erect plant, known to grow up to six meters (20 feet) in height. The stems of wild cane are thick, solid and resistant, and can grow to reach up to six centimeters (2.36 inches) in diameter. Its leaves are linear, serrated, up to two meters (over six feet) long, and arranged in two rows, giving the plant a fan-like overall form. Its feather-like inflorescence, which resembles that of sugar cane, can grow up to one meter (3 feet) in length, and in Peru it is used often as part of floral arrangements.
In the Peruvian Amazon, wild cane forms particularly dense stands. When seen from the river during boat journeys through tropical forest ecosystems, including those of southeastern Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve, stands of wild cane appear to form a benign riverside border of plant life; however, anyone who has ever attempted to leave a forest trail and venture towards a river or wetland by passing through a stand of caña brava, will attest to the unyielding, impenetrable nature of this abundant plant’s colonies, a characteristic which no doubt helped inspire its common Spanish name.
Although less strong than bamboo, traditionally the stems of wild cane have been used by indigenous peoples and colonists alike to build fencing and cages. Historically, some native peoples in the Americas have also used wild cane to make arrows. Archaeological evidence has shown that the ancient peoples of the Paracas peninsula and Ancón, on southern Peru’s desert coast, used Gynerium sagittatum to make shafts for their arrows, darts and harpoons. The ancient cultures of Chimú and Chancay, on Peru’s northern coast, employed wild cane to make the slats which formed the walls of their houses, as well as using the plant’s fibrous internal ribs to fashion baskets, mats, combs and headdresses. In his writings, the 17th century Spanish chronicler and Jesuit missionary Bernabé Cobo remarked upon the abundance of caña brava throughout “the Indies”, and listed its many uses. To this day, in those areas of Peru where wild cane occurs naturally, it is used in the manufacturing of handcrafts.
In traditional natural medicine, the ash from the burned leaves of wild cane, mixed with palm oil, is used to combat skin infections. An herbal tea made from the leaves and stems of wild cane is used in the treatment of anemia, and the roots can be boiled in an infusion which functions as an effective diuretic. The buds of wild cane inflorescences can be ground for use in a poultice said to be effective in the treatment of abscesses.