In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
October, 2003
Regional Report

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Arundo donax, not to be confused with bamboo, is used to make reeds for wind instruments. The music you love begins here!

Bamboozled in the Delta

Vacation is my favorite part about working. We loaded up our boat, the Dancing Dragon, with all the goodies we could possibly think of, for a week away from civilization.

After leaving our slip in South San Francisco, we had a wonderful sail across San Francisco, San Pablo, and Susuin Bays, winding our way under bridges into the fresh water of the San Joaquin River. This section of the Delta is both my summer home away from home and my personal concept of paradise. We drop the stern anchor into deep water, then nose up to the shore and tie a line around a tree. I am content to sit and read and swim for as long as the ice lasts. Then, it's into the dinghy for a Mr. Toad's wild ride into a nearby marina for supplies.

Since we were going to be in the area, a musician friend of mine who plays the saxophone asked me to look for "that plant that grows in the Delta that they make musical instrument reeds out of." I had no idea what he was referring to, but he had the name and so I dutifully did the research. I thought the plant would be a small, insignificant water weed or something. I was flabbergasted when I learned that Arundo Donax is the bamboo-like plant he was taking about. It's growing all over the Delta along the levees and tule berms, common as mud.

Music Begins Here
The word "Arundo" is Latin for "a reed," and it's often mistaken for bamboo. The length of the plant's "internodes" is what differentiates Arundo Donax from bamboo. The common bond between the two plants is that they are both grasses.

Arundo Donax is native to southern Europe and was introduced into cultivation in 1648. It was brought to the United States by French immigrants in the 1850s to be used for windbreaks. During World War II, the plant was again imported, this time to the San Fernando Valley, to replenish supplies and insure the future of the species that was being depleted by the bombing in Europe. (More recently it's been planted for bank stabilization, although its propensity for vigorous spreading has made it difficult to control.)

All musical instruments that have a vibrating reed use Arundo Donax. They include oboes, bassoons, English horns, clarinets, and saxophones. According to the experts, the best Arundo comes from the south of France. The canes increase in girth as the plant advances in age. The larger-sized segments are more suitable for the big wind instruments, such as bassoons. The narrow tops of the canes are then used for the smaller instruments, such as oboes, and mid sections are perfect for the clarinets.

The plant must be cut green and then aged to produce a reed that has proper tone and will have the durability to withstand a symphony performance. Musicians will pay a fortune for aged Arundo from the south of France.

Musicians buy the aged pieces that are either gouged or prepared. If you like to make your own reeds, you would buy the gouged wood. I know that oboists go through reeds like a teenager goes through popcorn at the movies, so for the sake of economy oboists must make their own, and plenty of them.

Now, if only I could figure out a marketing plan for seducing musicians into preferring the local Delta variety of Arundo Donax, I could stay on vacation forever!

Next time you are traveling in the Delta waterways, take a moment and consider the history of this commonly mistaken plant. The music you love begins here.


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