The Biofuels Center of North Carolina, a state-funded non-profit organization working to develop a large-scale biofuels industry in the state, lists the plant Arundo donax (also known as “giant reed” or “giant cane”) as one of the energy grasses being investigated as a potential feedstock crop for the state. However, David A. Crouse, a soil scientist at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh, N.C., has expressed concerns that Arundo could—if widely cultivated—become a runaway invasive species. Crouse recently told John Murawski of The News and Observer, “Arundo has got a lot of us scared. We have that concern that it could be kudzu-like.” Kudzu is an invasive plant originally introduced decades ago in the United States for erosion control; Kudzu is now considered a notorious and practically ineradicable invasive plant in North Carolina.
Crouse’s concerns resonate with those of officials in California, where Arundo is the subject of an eradication program in the state. Like Kudzu, Arundo was originally introduced in the U.S. for erosion control. A report from the California State Water Resources Control Board calls Arundo “an extremely problematic invasive plant characterized by extensive infestations and a range of severe impacts to both ecosystem and human infrastructure.” Arundo can be removed by hand or mechanical means, with herbicides, or by prescribed burning.
Arundo is a fast-growing plant that grows in dense stands, particularly in riparian areas – boundary areas between land and streams. Its high growth rate and productivity even on marginal croplands make it desirable as an energy crop for production of cellulosic ethanol. The Biofuels Center of North Carolina says that “Arundo donax can produce 20 dry tons per acre annually, making it one of the most productive of all energy biomass crops.” W. Steven Burke, CEO of the center, tells The News and Observer that Arundo is “a miracle plant in that you can grow it on less land and you get higher mass.”
But ecologist Sam Pearsall of the Environmental Defense Fund calls it “an amazingly dangerous plant” and says, “All it takes to propagate the stuff is for the stalk to fall down on the ground, and the nodes in the stalk put down roots and grow. The fact is that a hurricane or a flood is capable of taking Arundo vegetative matter all over the place.”