Lee Valley & Veritas

Gardening Newsletter
  Volume 13, Issue 3 - March 2018  
Bamboo – An Amazing Grass
Yin Yang bamboo 'Viridiflavus'
Yin Yang bamboo 'Viridiflavus' (Bambusa emeiensis) is a tropical bamboo with upright green culms that have narrow yellow striping.
My first encounter with bamboo was a memorable experience. The house we had just bought in southern British Columbia had a fenced backyard and the previous owners, who apparently didn't have much faith in the wooden boards alone, had planted a few clumps of bamboo along the fence line. Over several years, the clumps transformed the entire back yard into a bushy bamboo grove.

When my husband and I took ownership of the house, we did not have a precise vision for the yard, but it certainly didn't include a bamboo monoculture. We had two options: either adopt a giant panda, which eats bamboo exclusively, or pull out the plants ourselves. As there weren't any pandas readily available for adoption, option number two was our fate.

It took a long weekend of hard work to say a permanent goodbye to the bamboo grove. The leafy part above the surface was relatively easy to remove compared to the tough underground root portion. During the clearing process, we found a plant label that read "Golden Bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea)". As it turned out, it was an excellent type of bamboo for planting a grove, but not on a small city lot.

Bamboos are tree- or shrub-like grasses and the majority of species have woody stems. According to the most recent classification, there are 101 to 118 bamboo genera and approximately 1,400 species described worldwide. However, taxonomists are still not in full agreement over assigning certain species to particular genera. Plant systematics depends on flower structure, and bamboos are notoriously reluctant bloomers. This reluctance seems reasonable since after flowering takes place the plant declines and often dies.
Unidentified bamboo with golden culms
This unidentified bamboo has attractive slightly arching golden culms.
Bamboos evolved from prehistoric grasses relatively recently – about 30 to 40 million years ago. They used this time wisely and differentiated greatly. Nowadays bamboos are classified into three major groups known as tribes: the tropical woody bamboos (about 800 species), the temperate woody bamboos (about 500 species) and the herbaceous bamboos (with only about 120 species). Bamboos vary in size from small non-woody herbaceous annuals only a few centimetres tall to giant timber bamboos reaching a height of 45 metres. They also vary in growth habit and there are mainly two types – so-called "clumpers" and "runners". The clump-forming bamboo species (e.g. Fargesia spp.) spread slowly, expanding their roots gradually like their cousins, ornamental grasses. Alternatively, wild-running types (e.g. Phyllostachys spp.) send a multitude of underground rhizomes and produce new shoots often several metres from the parent plant. Runners have the potential to spread aggressively.

The overwhelming majority of bamboos are evergreen, so they don't lose their leaves in fall and grow new ones in spring like other broad-leaved trees. As young leaves grow, old ones are gradually lost. In spring, young shoots also emerge from the ground. Their growth cycle usually lasts about 60 days. After this period, the canes attain full height and diameter. Unlike trees, bamboo does not grow in width, so existing stems do not get broader each year. The length that a shoot reaches in a single growing season is its final height and there won't be a yearly increase. A developing bamboo produces new canes every year. The newly emerging stems are always thicker and taller than the previous year's growth. This amazing grass is undoubtedly the fastest growing plant in the world. Certain species can grow 91cm (approximately 36 inches) within a 24-hour period at a rate of about 3.8 centimetres per hour.
Green Japanese timber bamboo
One of the largest temperate bamboos is the Green Japanese timber bamboo
P. bambusoides), which can reach a height of 20 metres. It is the most widely harvested bamboo in Japan.
Bamboos are most readily distinguished by their culms, which are hollow aerial stems. These come in different sizes, forms and colors. Although green is predominant, some species feature stems that are yellow, brown, black and even spotted or striped. The typical culm is divided into many segments, with tough ring nodes and internodes. Strictly speaking, bamboo is not wood. Like trees, bamboo consists of cellulose fibers but they are much longer than those found in trees. These elongated fibers contain lignin and silica. Amazingly, bamboo has greater tensile strength than steel and can withstand compression better than concrete. Bamboo's strength is in its admirable ability to bend without breaking.
Sweetshoot bamboo   Yellow bamboo culm with stripy green markings
Sweetshoot bamboo (P. dulcis) produces extremely thick culms in comparison to its relatively short height (12 metres).   The stripy green markings on this yellow bamboo culm look hand-painted.
Most bamboos originated in Asia, where they still play an important role in everyday life. Not only do panda bears consume bamboo, but humans do as well. While pandas eat bamboo stems, shoots and leaves, humans limit their diet to young shoots that are best when harvested just before they emerge from the soil. Fortunately, all bamboo species have edible shoots, but the most commonly used is the Moso bamboo (P. edulis). Moreover, bamboos' shoots, resin and leaves have been ascribed medicinal properties, particularly the black bamboo (P. nigra).

For years, bamboo experts have been experimenting with the uses of bamboo and the list of possible applications keeps getting longer. Nowadays there are multiple bamboo-derived products for every letter of alphabet. This long list could start with animal fodder through to baby diapers, bicycles, biofuel, cardboard, clothing and coffee filters ... until it gets to utensils, umbrellas, veneer, violins and vinegar, then weaponry, watches, wine, xylophones, yarn and eventually zithers.
Dwarf white-striped bamboo
This dwarf white-striped bamboo is an upright bamboo with pale green canes and narrow leaves strikingly marked with dark green, chartreuse and white stripes. It reaches only 75cm in height and is a good candidate for a pot. If planted in the ground in ideal conditions, it can become invasive.
For millennia, bamboo has been a traditional construction material used in Asia, the South Pacific and South America. Due to its light weight, strength and resistance, bamboo has been used to build bridges, houses, fences, fountains, grates and gutters and nowadays it is still a scaffolding material.

Bamboo's beauty, elegance and evergreen growing habit have continually increased its popularity among gardeners on all continents. Most are easy to grow and tolerate pollution well. They can be planted as a hedge, grove, ground cover or as solitary plants. Bamboos grow well in courtyards, on balconies or terraces and even in rooftop gardens. They are also great candidates for containers. The low-growing species can be cultivated as bonsai, but this requires some experience.
Sunset Glow bamboo
Some smaller bamboo can grow well in pots such as Sunset Glow
Fargesia rufa).
Bamboo is a wonderful renewable resource. Depending on the species, it can be harvested in one to five years. Hardwoods such as oak trees take at least 40 years to mature. Bamboo as a substitute for hardwoods offers a chance to protect remaining forests. Moreover, as mentioned, most bamboos grow at an amazingly fast rate and when harvested, they produce new shoots from their extensive root systems. After harvesting, virtually every part of the plant can be used to make a wide variety of products. Adaptable bamboo is easy to cultivate and does not require fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Additionally, this amazing grass absorbs carbon dioxide and releases about 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of hardwood trees.

Worth mentioning is that lucky bamboo offered by florists and grown in decorative water containers is not a bamboo at all; it is not even an Asian native. Its correct common name is the ribbon plant (Dracaena sanderiana).

Bamboo is a truly spectacular plant that has a lot to offer and not only to gardeners. It's easy to understand its surging popularity as a material used in a large variety of products, all derived from this amazing grass.

Text and photos by Gina Dobrodzicka

Gina Dobrodzicka is a freelance writer and trained horticulturalist who lives on Vancouver Island.
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