Bamboo is a diverse group of plants with over 1,200 species ranging in size from very small low growing plants to towering giants of over 150 feet. Bamboo is cosmopolitan in origin and is among the most ancient plants in the grass family (Poaceae). Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on this planet and is most often compared with similarly upright growing trees because of its rigid woody stems that are called culms. Some species of bamboo grow one third faster than the fastest growing tree species, with the culms of some species growing over 3 feet per day. It is not surprising that with this speed of growth and the ability to harvest within 3-5 years (versus 10-20 for most softwoods) that bamboo has become a staple for many cultures and economies. It provides for food needs, medicinal ingredients, the timber for structures, fences, poles and artistic endeavors, the thatch for roofs and basketry and beauty for the gardens.
In the Garden
Bamboo is an exquisite component of landscape design, having both visual appeal and practical uses in the garden. Bamboo provides great beauty and it also has utilitarian values such as providing shade for other plantings and acting as a wind, acoustical or visual barrier. Due to the diversity of bamboo it is possible to find a plant for nearly any situation; mass plantings in full sun or shade, as a forest component, as a specimen, or as a container plant.
Planting bamboo also brings with it several responsibilities and garden chores. When planting bamboo one should remember that these plants can grow rapidly and that many species spread by underground rhizomes. Barriers for these rhizomes can be created and is best done prior to planting out the bamboo. Additionally, it is the bamboo gardeners responsibility not to allow their plants to recklessly wander off into the neighbors yard. There is not much care required to maintain bamboo plants but they can create dense clumps that look more appealing if they are thinned occasionally and as individual canes live for several years and then die off, these canes will need to be cut out. When planting bamboo one should have some patience as plants grow quickly only once they establish their root system - this period can be as short as one year to as long as five years for the larger timber bamboo. The spread and growth rate of bamboo is directly proportional to irrigation and fertilizer applications; faster growth is attained with frequent watering and monthly applications of a high nitrogen fertilizer and to slow growth reduce both water and fertilizer. As a way of controlling a plants spread it is good to note that bamboo will not generally grow out into dry soil.
Bamboo flowers infrequently but when it occurs the plant will often expire or become weakened and sickly. This phenomenon has plagued cultures that rely on bamboo for centuries. For gardeners it is a nuisance and is further complicated by our lack of knowledge about when a given species will flower and whether or not all plants of a clone of that species will flower at the same time. In some cases flowering has been beneficial to horticulture. This was the case with several species of Mexican bamboo that, until they flowered and set seed from which to grow new plants, were relatively scarce in the nursery trade. If your bamboo begins to flower it does not mean its demise is near or even eminent ; several species of bamboo can flower for many years and other species do not perish after flowering. The American Bamboo Society (ABS) collects data on the flowering of bamboo and publishes accounts of flowering in its monthly bulletin. The flowering information within our plant descriptions comes from a list compiled by ABS member Betty Shor in May 1995. For those interested in the flowering phenomenon, a lengthy article about it is featured in the June 1996 ABS Bulletin.
If you have a bamboo that is flowering the ABS would most likely want to hear from you at:
American Bamboo Society
or at the
750 Krumkill Road
Albany, New York 12203-5976
American Bamboo Society Web Page