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(Thesis for M.F.A. in Oboe Performance - California Institute of the Arts)

Marsha Taylor 1971                              Revised & Annotated 1996

                        TABLE OF CONTENTS

Primary Classifications
Cultivation in General
The Root System
The Leafy Shoot
Water and Soil
Transplanting, Experiments and Diseases
France vs. California



I hope those who read this monograph will gain some new insight into oboe cane in its botanical and agricultural setting.

I wish to express special thanks to John Ellis for his help and suggestions in the cane growing itself, and Lawrence Smith, my mentor, for his editorial suggestions.


Oboe cane is a member of the grass family, genus Arundo (Note: NOT of the Bambusa genus as cane is sometimes called "bamboo" by mistake). In the genus Arundo, there are four species. Oboe cane is the donax species.

Arundo donax is perennial, meaning that it grows all year without dying out in the winter. "Perennial-growing indefinitely or at least two years or more."1 It requires no re-seeding each year and there is little physical change in the plant except for growth. Arundo is "riparius," growing on river banks (or wash banks).


In parts of the world where conditions such as alkaline soil, hot weather, sandy earth and poor drainage exist, there is a possibility that some species of Arundo is likely to be growing. Of the four species, Arundo has the closest fiber make-up and it is this fibril characteristic that distinguishes it from the other three species, as in general, in root, stem and leaf appearance, all four species look very similar. Thus, it is easy to think that you have Arundo but in reality, you quite probably don't. For every considerable patch of Arundo I came across, there were maybe four times that amount of some other species growing nearby.

California in parts has those exact conditions listed above and theoretically could produce Arundo donax. Fortunately, I was able to come upon sufficient quantities to experiment with cultivation and reed-making.

California cane. - top

It is generally known that Arundo donax was brought to California in the 1890's by French immigrants to be used on ranches here as wind breaks. This can be substantiated by the fact that a great amount that I found was growing on small ranches serving this same purpose today.

There is a second theory that an employee of Rico Reed Company which uses some California cane for commercial purposes, in the 1940's planted starters in washes and gullies all over the San Fernando Valley to replenish the European shortage at that time due to the bombing of French cane fields during W.W.II. These were either forgotten or were torn up and replaced by cement aqueducts in the early 1960's.

Which ever or both are very likely to be true. All of the cane I found is growing either on small ranches or in washes of the San Fernando Valley.


The root is mainly a soil adjusted organ. It has two functions: ANCHORAGE-holding the plant in a stationary position, and ABSORPTION of water and dissolved substances in the soil.

THE STEM - top

The stems have two main functions, they support the leaves in the air and light where they can carry on photosynthesis. Stems act as channels through which water and solules reach the leaves.

Many perennials store food in their roots or stems to carry them through the winter and to start their growth the following spring. This particular root is actually an underground flattened stem called a rhizome and it is common to sod forming grasses. Sod is a combination of branching rhizomes and numerous adventitious fibrous roots growing from them.

This rhizome phenomenon is one of the striking characteristics of Arundo donax. This explains the relative shallow root system and the difficulty of removing a plant from the ground without destroying it. The rhizomes or the underground stems are the cause of the difficulty of removal by their locking the plant into the ground.

Rhizomes of Arundo have branches rising from them growing about the ground forming aerial stems.


The point on the stem where a leaf is attached is a NODE and the parts between the nodes are the INTERNODES. If the internodes extend greatly in length, the nodes (tubes) are far apart, but if the internodes remain short, nodes and leaves are correspondingly nearer together. This is another of the subtle differences between the species of Arundo as the length of the internodes in donax is longer than in the other species. "Nodes and internodes are very clearly seen as distinct structure in plants as corn, bamboo and many of the other grasses."2


(The first "shredded wheat" to come off in gouging, a sort of translucent white color.)

This is the portion of the center of the stem. In some species as Arundo, it breaks down in part soon after it is formed, leaving the stem or cane hollow. "Central pith appears to have little except occasional function as when reserve starch accumulates in its cells. It is certain that it plays no significant part in the primary values of the stem to the plant. Its thin-walled cells loosely fitted together can neither add rigidity to the stem nor act as an effective conductive tissue."2


In order for a plant to live, enough water has to be taken in to replace that which is lost in the evaporation of water from the tissues of a plant and that which is lost in metabolism. Whenever this loss exceeds the intake, wilting occurs, growth stops and if this goes on long enough, the plant dies. Too much water reduces the supply of oxygen, so it is hard for many plants to live with their roots completely submerged in water or in extremely wet soil.

Based on this supposition, plants are categorized to be either Hydrophytes which grow with part or all of the body in the mud or water; Xerophytes which grow in extremely dry conditions or Mesophytes, plants thriving on intermediate conditions of transpiration and soil moisture.

Arundo donax is classified as a Mesophyte or almost a Hydrophyte or almost a Xerophyte. It is almost these two classifications as it can live on a great amount of water or it can exist on no water for a long duration also. It is because of cell structure etc. that it is a Mesophyte.

The soil in which oboe cane thrives is alkaline. Alkaline soil is found in semi-arid and arid areas (20" or less of rainfall per year). This semi-aridness is common to both Southern California and Southern France.

"Another rule of thumb: Sandy soils are more likely to be acid than clay soils. These rules are wide open to exceptions of course, especially in ocean beach areas."2 Since cane grows in France near the Mediterranean Sea, the soil is sandy and since the California cane is growing in a natural wash, it too is growing in sandy soil. Arundo thrives on sandy, alkaline soil.

The characteristics of an alkaline soil are of course a pH reading above 7 but also an abundance of lime, calcium nitrate and nitrogen.

The water used in growing my cane contains dissolved calcium salts as it is untreated hard water. True hard water carries quantities of calcium, magnesium and other salts in solution.


(in the San Fernando Valley)

The specific conditions of Southern California interior valleys: midsummer maximum temperatures average 93 degrees to 96 degrees. Summer extremes hit 116 degrees to 118 degrees. Frosts are very infrequent as daytime winter temperatures are high and re-radiation of daytime stored heat from the soil at night lessens frost. But, it is not rare to have a winter day hit 80 degrees and drop to 32 degrees at dawn. 2 degrees to 3 degrees above general lows make a plant protection and subtropical conditions are created. Spring temperatures end abruptly in June and summer heat wave starts in July with its peak in early September. April and May are generally cool and foggy.

Weather in France - top

The important cane growing towns in Southern France are Frejus, Nice, Antibes, St. Maxime, Le Lavandon, Hyeres and Toulon. These towns are located relatively near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, they have sandy soil conditions and much moisture.

"For centuries the Cote d'Azur has been famous for its balmy year-round climate, for sea and sand warmed by unfailingly brilliant sun. Protected by the mountains, the resorts have an almost unvaried pattern of fine sunny weather. In January, their coldest month, the mean temperature may drop to as low as 50 degrees F - which merely means that with afternoon sun, the thermometer usually rises well into the 80's. The natives boast that there are three days of frost a year and fog is even more rare. In spring, when the weather becomes warmer, there are brief but frequent showers. It is during these months that the powerful, cool mistral sweeps down from the north, particularly in the west of Toulon. Summer is hot - sometimes very hot but along the coast, the cool sea breezes will keep you comfortable. Although autumn brings violent storms, there's little danger of spending your stay indoors."3

This is a typical travel agent approach to describing the weather conditions on the Riviera, but it does state very clearly that they have very hot summers, mild winters and some rainfall. If you compare this with the conditions in the San Fernando Valley in California, you will find some very striking similarities between the two.


The conditions under which I found this Arundo growing were not of the most conducive for the best possible cultivation, this being a wash under a highway, a collect-all for oil, sulfur fumes, shopping carts and millions of pieces of string every possible length. This is without mentioning the serenading of distant frogs and screaming little boys hunting for tadpoles. It seems that somehow this particular wash escaped the cement craze of the early 60's and you never know if they will decide to cover this one over too, as previously all of these washes in this area were all full of abundantly growing Arundo donax. To worsen the situation, this is federal property.

Needless to say, I decided to transplant some of the smaller offshoots to a more remote wash to the north about two miles and to experiment in my backyard at home.

There is a small ranch above the wash on the highway there where I first discovered it growing. The owner of the ranch has made use of the cane as a windbreak by inter-weaving the dead Arundo into the live stalks which stand about 50 feet high. Actually, this is where I got most of my starters, as these plants were growing under much better circumstances. These plants were also much younger than the ones growing under the highway in the wash, which is a contributing factor to the success of any transplanting, generally.

This main transplanting took place in early January of this year. The conditions were not too cold, about 55 to 60 degrees F and hazy. Earlier in December of 1970 I had experimented with one small plant given to me by the farmer of the ranch on the highway near the wash. It took hold and grew approximately 1/4" per week. This is when I decided to continue on a larger basis. (Since then that particular plant has slowed down considerably in rate of growth but it is still increasing in height and new leaves at a high rate.) The youngest plants are the most apt to be successful, although dead plants which had been yellow for as long as two months (or appeared dead they could have been suffering from root shock which is common in many plants) regenerated new green leaves and the once yellowed leaves "greened" up. A main root or "tuber" when planted will grow new shoots after awhile.

Plants that seemed to be dying rapidly improved remarkably with the help of some vitamin B complex mixed in one gallon of water.

This is not to say that every plant lived because certainly not every one did - about 15% loss.

Diseases - top

The leaves of these plants suffered slight nibbling attacks by common garden variety snails. Since I wanted to keep these plants strictly in an organic environment, no pesticide was used to combat these pests.

Experiments - top

I experimented with taking a very green stem and placing it in water to see if it would sprout new roots as you can do with a sweet potato. This brought about only slimy water and no new roots.

I have found Arundo to be quite hardy. As it grows where the topsoil had obviously been oiled to try and stop the growth.

My small upstarts survived 60MPH winds and a small hurricane where the fence which is 9" in back of the plants was blown down, but the cane plants were unharmed. This certainly supports the windbreak theory.

I have experimented with picking green stalks and leaving them in the sun, but the results were very slow with a tendency to develop a graininess to the fibers.


The California cane which was used in reed making, the stalks from which the tubes were cut, were naturally ripe from the sun, the pieces were not cut green in the beginning.

These plants were not pruned by harvesting as in France, the thickness of the tubes (XS) or the distance from the pith to the bark is much thinner than cane from France.

The overall length of the tubes varied from 4" to 8". The diameter of the oboe tubes were all different sizes. Because these plants aren't as old, the diameter of the base of the largest stalks was not large enough for bassoon cane. So the order of size on these particular stalks would probably be oboe at the top of the stalk, English Horn, Bb clarinet and bassoon being the largest to work with.

In general, this cane is of a very white appearance, after it is gouged and cut into reeds. The whiteness is only a color and not necessarily an indication of softness or anything else. The cane might be a little softer but this can be because of the fact that this cane wasn't aged at all. Many bunches of stalks tied together have been put away in a dark garage -- we will see in about two more years.


In the years since the writing of this paper, cane that has now been aged over 20 years has certainly aged to a wonderful golden brown color. The density has gotten harder. It still retains its own characteristic qualities ranging from a lesser "bright" sounding reed to a pithy and too soft or unusable piece of cane.

California Arundo donax has been discovered and used by others since the writing of this paper. It actually is now being cultivated commercially in Northern California and is sold commercially for modern oboe uses by such establishments as Forrests Music in Berkeley. I myself have found a commercial and personal use for it for Baroque and Classical oboe. This is because the overall softer vascular bundle of this cane lends itself very well to the larger bore and reed dimensions of these early instruments.


1. Western Garden Book

2. Western Garden Book

3. The French Riviera


Doty, Walter L. Sunset Western Garden Book (Lane Publishing Co. 1956.)

Holiday, A Holiday Magazine Travel Guide to the Riviera and Southern France (Random House 1966.)


Arundo donax: Source of Musical Reeds and Industrial Cellulose by Robert E. Perdue, Jr. -- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Beltsville, Maryland. 1958

LINKS - top

Considered by many as an important membership for a double reed player, but also occasionally covers technical aspects of the bassoon or oboe.