ISSUE 62  |  Japonesque

Bamboo, the Re-Think

January 24, 2017 6:00 AM

BY Jeanne Rostaing

Mention bamboo in a room full of professional gardeners, as I did recently, and they are likely to recoil and say “nooooo” in unison. This useful and lovely Asian staple has a reputation as an uncontrollable, invasive thug. A gardener in business for years told me she never plants bamboo for clients because she is “scared to death of it.”

But is it possible that the very bad reputation of bamboo (which is actually a member of the grass family) is undeserved? With proper handling, the Public Enemy No. 1 of the plant world can join polite society—with the caveat that you must absolutely know which type of bamboo you are dealing with. There is running bamboo and there is clumping bamboo. Ignore the differences at your peril.

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Above: Bamboo screens a path in a landscape by WE Design, a member of the Remodelista Architects and Designers Directory. Photograph courtesy of WE Design.

Running bamboo is extremely aggressive and swift to escape its bounds by sending out widely spreading underground rhizomes. An example is timber bamboo, most commonly the genus Phyllostachys, which grows tall, up to 50 feet in some cases. Of concern is its propensity to produce many new canes, known as “culms”, that can grow at the amazing rate of 4 inches a day. For Phyllostachys and a wide selection of other varieties, go to Bamboo Garden, which identifies each of the dozens of bamboo types for sale as either clumping or running; prices range from $10 to $350 per plant, depending on type and size.

Above: Black bamboo (Phyllostachys Nigra). Photograph by Harum Koh via Flickr.

If special planting methods and rigorous maintenance are employed, running bamboo can be kept under control and can provide a statuesque, evergreen hedge that can block an unsightly view or provide privacy in a large garden.A  – to 3-foot tall  Phyllostachys Nigra, black bamboo,  is $25 from Bamboo Garden.

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Above: Fargesia nitida grows at the edge of a pond at a botanical garden in Münster, Germany. Photograph by Daniel J. Layton via Wikimedia.

If you prefer less maintenance, less worry, and don’t mind a smaller plant, clumping bamboo is a better choice. It also sends out rhizomes, but they are closer to the plant so the spread is not so vigorous. Some examples of clumping bamboos are in the genus Fargesia which includes Fargesia nitida (Chinese fountain bamboo) and Fargesia rufa (“Green Panda”). Fargesia Nitida is $20 from Bamboo Garden.

Above: Sasa veitchii bamboo. Photograph by Harum Koh via Flickr.

Kumazasa bamboo (Sasa veitchii) is a native of Japan and gets its beautiful variegated appearance when the edges of its leaves wither in cold weather. Sasa Veitchii is $15 from Bamboo Garden.

The best insurance against out-of-control growth, of course, is planting bamboo in containers. Tara Douglass of the Brooklyn Plant Studio, recommends smaller clumping bamboos such as Pleioblastus kongosanenis “Aureostriatus” for terrace containers. Because bamboos like moisture, Douglass suggests using a clay-based soil. Prune back the bamboo and rake it out in the spring to encourage healthy new growth. Pleioblastus Kongosanenis “Aureostriatus” is $20 from Bamboo Garden.

In the end, it does seem a shame to avoid a plant that has been growing on earth for millions of years. Yes, stories abound of nightmarish plantings taking over yards, tunneling under fences and cracking open concrete barriers. But a little research–plus appropriate planting methods and maintenance–can enable you to add this unique and exotic plant to your garden without fear.

For more of our favorite ways to use bamboo, see Trend Alert: Instant Rollout Fences and Bamboo Cloches for the Garden.

N.B.: This is an update of a post originally published March 6, 2013.