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10 Things Nobody Tells You About Bamboo

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10 Things Nobody Tells You About Bamboo

January 22, 2020

Ah, bamboo—it’s one of those plants that you either love or hate. Me? Well, years ago my husband and I planted a hedge-line of bamboo in the backyard to screen out a view (it does a fantastic job), and in our front yard we have a substantial and stately giant timber bamboo as well as two gorgeous clumps of feathery Mexican Weeping bamboo, so…you could say I’m on the love side.

Of course, that is, until I cross over to the hate side.

The hate rears its head when the rampant running varieties devilishly break out of their line and invade unsuspecting areas. Yes, sadly, I have been bamboozled. Just like a lot of people on the hater side. But, in the end, I have come to an understanding about this remarkable plant. After years of planting and maintaining bamboo, I am aware of both its pitfalls and positives, and ultimately the positives win out.

Please keep reading to learn more about this winner of a plant:

1. Bamboo can be a clumper or a runner.

Above: One way to ensure your bamboo doesn’t run rampant is to plant it in a container. Photograph by Marcus Harpur, from Designer Visit: The Black and Green Garden of Chris Moss.

At Bamboo Sourcery, a sustainable, family-run bamboo nursery in Sebastopol, CA, Cristie Kiley tells me the most common misconception about bamboo is that people think all bamboo runs. Sure, some varieties do run—and run and run if uncontained—but there is a whole other group called clumpers, and these bamboo types stay in their designated areas and slowly grow into a cluster. Before buying any bamboo, carefully read labels and do your homework to know what type you are buying. If you do choose a running type, I strongly urge you contain it, especially if you are thinking of planting it on a property line or in a small garden. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life trying to kill it. Either plant running bamboo in large pots or containers (galvanized horse troughs work great), or in the ground surrounded by a high-density polyethylene plastic rhizome barrier that’s installed 26-34 inches deep and with 2 inches of barrier protruding above the soil to prevent rhizomes from jumping out.

2. Bamboo is a grass, not a tree.

Above: A cluster of bamboo grows next to the ping pong table in Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan’s garden. Photograph courtesy of Vickie Cardaro, from Before and After: Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan on Shelter Island.

Despite countless images in books and on social media of dense, towering, tree-like bamboo groves, bamboo is actually in the grass family of Poaceae, and—not surprisingly—is the biggest in the family. Just like ornamental grasses, slender-leaved, delicate bamboo can provide that much needed textural interest and pairs well with contrasting bigger, bolder-leafed plants.

3. Bamboo grows lightning fast.

Photograph by Sean Kernan, from Outbuilding of the Week: A Teahouse on the Connecticut Coast.
Above: Photograph by Sean Kernan, from Outbuilding of the Week: A Teahouse on the Connecticut Coast.

Ever wondered what the fastest growing plant is? You guessed it: bamboo. Some tropical species’ new shoots can grow an impressive 4 feet in one day, but it does reach maximum size within 5 to 15 years. This impressive skill makes bamboo a go-to for solving hedge and view issues, not to mention a major renewable and sustainable crop.

4. Bamboo is Superman-strong.

Photograph via Commune by the Great Wall, from For Rent: Your Own Bamboo Palace by the Great Wall.
Above: Photograph via Commune by the Great Wall, from For Rent: Your Own Bamboo Palace by the Great Wall.

Try to break a large bamboo cane in two, and it is impossible. In fact, bamboo’s tensile strength is stronger than steel: 28,000 per square inch versus 23,000 for steel. In some places such as Hong Kong, workers use bamboo in place of traditional scaffolding, and this time-proven technique goes back centuries. Compared with iron rods, bamboo is less expensive, faster to build with, and easier to transport.

5. Bamboo helps Mother Earth.

A bamboo grove is edged with low-lying Monstera deliciosa in Jardin Majorelle. Photograph by Alessio Mei, from Gardens of Marrakesh. See Required Reading: Gardens of Marrakesh.
Above: A bamboo grove is edged with low-lying Monstera deliciosa in Jardin Majorelle. Photograph by Alessio Mei, from Gardens of Marrakesh. See Required Reading: Gardens of Marrakesh.

Did you know that bamboo produces 35% more oxygen than trees, plus it consumes more carbon dioxide than any other plant? This means this grass helps reverse the effects of global warming by swallowing up greenhouse gasses. On top of that, bamboo makes a superb alternative to wood, which means bamboo could play a important role in forest and landscape restoration. Unlike most tree species, harvesting won’t kill bamboo which means topsoil erosion and other negative effects of tree-felling are reduced. Bamboo can also replace wood in flooring, furniture, utensils, even bedding and clothing.

6. Bamboo is not a fire risk if well-maintained.

A hedge of Pseudosasa japonica (arrow bamboo) is trimmed precisely (but still manages to have a casual, shaggy air) in the garden at Bertrams Guldsmeden hotel in Copenhagen. See \10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Denmark.
Above: A hedge of Pseudosasa japonica (arrow bamboo) is trimmed precisely (but still manages to have a casual, shaggy air) in the garden at Bertrams Guldsmeden hotel in Copenhagen. See 10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Denmark.

With fires being a devastatingly ever-growing problem these days, there has been much talk about whether bamboo is flammable or not. Those stating that bamboo should be removed because of fire risks are perhaps missing the fact that bamboo contains few volatile oils and the canes are high is silica content. If bamboo is green and living, and dead stalks, stems, and leaves are removed, then it does not pose a serious fire risk. The determining factor really is proper maintenance. In fact, groves of large timber bamboo have been used as fire breaks.

7. Bamboo cleans up.

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

Bamboo is extremely good  at removing metals and other toxic substances from water and soil.  This method of using plants as an organic factor to eliminate pollutants is called phytoremediation. And different parts of the bamboo, including leaves, roots, shoots and rhizomes, help aid in the cleanup. Bamboo is also superior at preventing soil erosion and flooding due to its complex network of roots.

8. Bamboo is food.

Bamboo shoots for sale at a market in Xiamen, China. Photograph by Scott Edmunds via Flickr.
Above: Bamboo shoots for sale at a market in Xiamen, China. Photograph by Scott Edmunds via Flickr.

Of course we know that bamboo shoots and leaves are the favorite food of giant panda bears, but the shoots have been eaten throughout Asia for centuries and used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Bamboo contains germanium, which some believe activates your immune system. Edible bamboo species are Bambusa vulgaris and Phyllostachys edulis.

9. Bamboo can be cold-hardy.

Here&#8\2\17;s what the bamboo at the Connecticut tea house (pictured earlier) looks like covered in snow. Photograph by Sean Kernan, from Outbuilding of the Week: A Teahouse on the Connecticut Coast.
Above: Here’s what the bamboo at the Connecticut tea house (pictured earlier) looks like covered in snow. Photograph by Sean Kernan, from Outbuilding of the Week: A Teahouse on the Connecticut Coast.

Despite their love of warmth and sun, some bamboo varieties can tolerate freezing winter temperatures while still adding a tropical touch. Some varieties include golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) and black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) that can tolerate freezing temperatures in winter. Varieties that appreciate a more mild climate include weaver’s bamboo (Bambusa textilis) and Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata spp. aztecorum), which thrive in US zones 8 and above.

10. Bamboo is versatile.

A bamboo hedge in the back of a Brooklyn garden. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista: The Definitive Guide to Stylish Outdoor Spaces. See Privacy Landscaping: How to Use Plants in a City Garden.
Above: A bamboo hedge in the back of a Brooklyn garden. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista: The Definitive Guide to Stylish Outdoor Spaces. See Privacy Landscaping: How to Use Plants in a City Garden.

There are over 1,500 species of bamboo to choose from, and this plant fits perfectly into most gardens styles from tropical to modern. Bamboo succeeds in a garden when used as a hedge, focal poin,t or privacy screen. Also, some types uniquely stand out, such as Bambusa multiplex ‘Alfonse Karr,’ with its striking brilliant stems striped green on yellow with new growth an attractive pinkish hue. The bottom line is to always plant bamboo responsibly to protect neighbors, property lines—and your sanity.

For more on bamboo, see:

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