How to Choose the Best Bamboos

By now you’ve probably heard a thing or two about the many virtues of bamboo — its versatility, its sustainability, its indispensability. And you’ve no doubt admired its beauty, as it flourishes among pagodas in Japanese gardens, on the patios of Thai restaurants and sushi bars, and on-screen in some of your favorite kung fu movies.

But you may have also heard horror stories about people planting bamboo and soon finding it completely out of control. Perhaps a neighbor planted some and within a couple years it was all up in your flower bed choking out your roses and suffocating your award-winning bearded irises. Indeed, bamboo can be aggressive, sustainable in the worst kind of way, downright indestructible.

So how can you ornament you garden with this incredible plant without running into deep regrets 3 or 4 years down the road?

First and foremost, unless you really really know what you’re doing or really really don’t care, keep your bamboo in a container. Bamboo looks great in pots, and in something like an old wine barrel it has plenty of room to prosper, without encroaching on your crocus or tickling your tulips.

Secondly, it’s helpful to realize that there are some 1500 varieties of bamboo, with various personalities and growth habits. People tend to divide them into two groups:  runners and clumpers. Runners are the aggressive ones that run amok in your lawn and garden, whereas clumpers generally stay pretty compact.

This division can be helpful, but dividing 1500 species into 2 groups can also be a very misleading oversimplification. If you plant a clumper alongside a regularly sprinkled lawn, the grassy clumper will quickly gravitate toward the sprinklers and start looking a lot like a runner. Likewise, if you plant a runner in a chilly climate like the high sierras or upstate New York, it might end up behaving more like a clumper.

Also, bamboos are notoriously difficult to identify — thousands of varieties and most of them look very similar. Even nurseries get them mixed up, especially those that don’t specialize in bamboos. And it might take a few years for you to realize that your friendly clumper was really a pathological runner in disguise.

There’s an old saying about bamboo: The first year in sleeps, the second year it creeps, and the third year it leaps. Do not underestimate the eastern wisdom!

With that in mind, here are eight species of bamboo to consider for accenting your garden.

· Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys Nigra) – one of the most highly sought after species, black bamboo is named for the very dark color of its stalks. At maturity this legendary runner can get up to an inch or two in diameter and as much as 30″ tall.

· Mexican Weeping Bamboo (Otatea acuminata) – with its delicate, draping foliage, this clumping variety makes a nice ornamental accent. In a container it’s unlikely to get taller than 6 feet.

· Timber (Phyllostachys Vivax) – like most members of the phyllostachys, this ones a runner. It’s popular for its great size. When planted in the ground and well feed it can get 4-5 inches in diameter and up to 60 feet tall.

· Temple (Semiarundinaria Fastuosa) – a personal favorite of mine, this regal looking bamboo grows very tall, straight and compact. Growing up to 20 or 30 feet high, and about 1.5″ in diameter, it’s about the largest hardy bamboo you can find, for those of you in freezing climates.

· Arrow (Pseudosasa Japonica) – known as a “running clumper,” this makes an excellent privacy screen, tall and dense. It grows up to about 15 feet with thick foliage. Easily recognizable for its unusually large leaves – up to 12″ long.

· Old Ham’s (Bambusa Oldhammi) – another very popular variety, Old Ham’s grows very tall and straight. A giant tropical bamboo, it clumps tightly but grows vigorously.

· Golden (Phyllostachys Aurea) – one of the most popular varieties because it is so widely available. That’s because it’s an aggressive runner that’s easy to propagate. Good for a rapidly expanding privacy hedge, but very difficult to remove. Beware of infestations!

· Square Bamboo (Chimonobambusa Quadrangularis) – especially interesting for its squarish (rather than round) culms. Also unusual because it flowers every few years. But it usually dies after flowering, making it a pretty short-lived variety.

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