Originally published in the Davis Enterprise
Much revered and maligned, bamboo is the most widely cultivated and used plant in the world.
In the United States, it's grown for its beauty and grace in the landscape as hedges, groves or an accent plant near water features. Worldwide it's grown as food for people and livestock; for reclamation, windbreaks and erosion control; for construction, handicrafts, musical instruments, paper, flooring and more.
Types of bamboo
The running habit of some types of bamboo gives a bad reputation to all bamboo.
Many plants are sold as "bamboo," including the Giant reed (Arundo donax) and Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) because they resemble bamboo although they are not even in the same family!
Hundreds of species and varieties exist of true bamboos, which are in the grass family. The American Bamboo Society's source list has nearly 400 kinds available from sources in the United States!
Bamboo can be classed as "runners" (invasive) or "clumpers" (non-invasive), and the Sunset Western Garden Book identifies each species this way. Running bamboos spread vigorously -- 5 to 10 feet per year - under fences, through expansion joints in concrete, and over barriers designed to restrain them. Look out!
Common running bamboos
The two best known in Northern California are Golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) and Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra). Both are primarily responsible for the "nuisance" reputation, as they often are planted without barriers and then spread into neighbors' yards.
Japanese Timber bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides)was commonly planted in California, but most died after a major flowering in the 1970s. Many, though not all, bamboo will nearly die after widespread flowering. Individual plants may flower due to stress; widespread or "gregarious" flowering is world-wide flowering of all the plants of a particular species or clone.
This characteristic nearly led to the starvation of pandas in China several years ago, when that species flowered. Since most of the bamboo in a large grove is a big clone, the whole plant flowers, sets seed and either dies or is severely stunted. If that's the only thing you eat, it might be time to reconsider your evolutionary strategies! But pandas move slowly and are stubborn animals....
When planting runners, barriers can be effective in confining them if monitored annually, to check that bamboo rhizomes have not escaped over or under the barrier. The roots travel in the top foot of soil, so a barrier of 18 to 24 inches is effective if angled outward from the bamboo. A rhizome that hits a straight up-and-down barrier may go up ... but it also may go down ... and under ... and bamboo has been recorded diving 4 feet to get beneath a barrier!
If the barrier is angled outward, the rhizome always will go up and can be snapped off as it tries to escape.
A pond or stream also can act as a barrier. Drought can be used to prevent the spread of bamboo, as it does not like to grow into dry soil (but withholding water once it's there won't kill it).
Unfortunately, I've been in many yards where running bamboo has taken over, and most of these problems could have been avoided by using the right type in the first place! Clumpers also spread by rhizomes, but only at the rate of an inch or so a year. My 12-year-old clump of Alphonse Karr is 4 feet across at the base, similar to large landscape shrubs.
And don't make assumptions: There are huge clumpers such as "Oldham's Giant Timber," which can reach 30 feet or more, and very tiny runners (some species of Pleioblastus are less than 8 inches tall and spread rampantly).
What bamboo wants
Most bamboo will take full sun or light shade and aren't fussy about soil. Some species require afternoon shade here. All like plenty of water, especially when the new shoots are growing (usually spring for runners, and summer for clumpers). Many are from monsoon areas, so they put on all their new growth during the few weeks corresponding to that time of year where they originate. Give them lots of water and lots of fertilizer containing nitrogen ' lawn food is fine, as bamboo is just a big grass ' at that time, and you can double a plant's height in a season.
Bamboo also is easily kept confined to a container for many years, making an excellent specimen plant or bonsai.
Selecting a type to grow in Northern California is limited by two factors: cold-hardiness and availability. Our hard freezes in 1990 and 1998 damaged some species, while others had light damage. Tropical species are damaged at 40 degrees, while Himalayan species will grow above 6,000 feet.
Only a few wholesale growers of bamboo exist in Northern California, and large general wholesalers usually grow the running species, but some specialty growers can be found in the Bay Area. It may seem odd that the plants are somewhat expensive: $45 and up in a No. 5 can.
This is because they propagate only by division, so each plant increases slowly.
A list of species and varieties we stock or can special-order is available on this website.
If you want to get rid of bamboo, see the article Controlling Bamboo by my father, George Shor.
Bamboo is beautiful, useful and tough. Since it hardly ever flowers, it's non-allergenic. It attracts very few pests or diseases in our area. It grows in sun or shade, and some types can be grown in almost any situation. If you've always been intrigued by bamboo, or if you want a versatile plant for your landscape niches, you should move beyond the bad reputation, educate yourself ... and grow bamboo!
Bamboo Resources on the Internet
This website includes:
Or try the American Bamboo Society, which has lots of information.
You can even download the ABS Source list!
Click here for more information about bamboo.
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.
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