A new species of North American bamboo was recently discovered by Iowa State University and University of North Carolina botanists, making it the third known native species of the hardy grass in the United States. The "hill cane" was discovered in the Appalachian Mountains. It's different from the other two native species of bamboo, which were discovered more than 200 years ago, because it drops its leaves in the fall.
"We tend to think that we ... know our own biodiversity, and that there isn't much left to discover in a place like the United States. I think this demonstrates that that's not true," said Lynn Clark, an ISU professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology.
She said that she and Ph.D. student Jimmy Triplett were first tipped off that this might be a different type of bamboo by University of North Carolina botanist Alan Weakley. They drove to the mountains to see the plant, which locals knew about but hadn't been recognized for its distinctiveness.
"We drove up, we got out of the car, we looked at it and went, 'Ah, it's different. This one doesn't have a name,'" she said.
Hill cane, or Arundinaria appalachiana, grows only to about 6 feet, compared with the other North American species — river cane and switch cane — which each can grow much taller and thicker.
"It's overall kind of a smaller plant ... and more delicate," said Clark, an international bamboo expert who has discovered 74 other new species, mostly throughout Central and South America.
While she doesn't think there are more native species of bamboo to be discovered in North America, she said there are many more to be sought out around the world.
"These are difficult plants to work with, so a lot of people ... don't pay much attention," she said. "When you do look at them, there is this incredible diversity."
So far, Clark said there are 1,400 species of bamboo classified around the globe, and that the plants play an important ecological role. She said people are becoming more interested in planting bamboo as part of re-vegetation projects because it can be used as habitat for many animals and prevent erosion.
Clark, Triplett and Weakley recently completed the process of officially naming and describing the newfound bamboo species, including preparing Latin and English descriptions as well as drawings. Their work appeared last fall in the journal "Sida, Contributions to Botany."
She and Triplett are studying North American bamboo as part of a larger worldwide project to develop an evolutionary family tree of bamboo species. Their work includes modern DNA sequencing and traditional plant taxonomy.
"It helps us understand better what the history of bamboo evolution has been," she said.