After some 10 or 20 thousand years of cultivation, bamboo’s popularity may in fact be at an all-time high. Of course, 10,000 years ago, there were a lot fewer people around to exchange gardening tips. But it’s also true that more and more people today are recognizing bamboo for its utility, versatility, aesthetic beauty, and all-around sense of good joo-joo. Though it’s been revered in the Far East for these same qualities for many thousands of years, it’s taken a few extra centuries for this thing of wonder to reach the west and spread like wildfire — not unlike a few other things I can think of. Yoga and sushi quickly come to mind.
As if sorting through the options of bamboo toothbrushes and bamboo towels weren’t challenging enough, consider now that if you’re looking to plant a few varieties of bamboo in your garden, you’ll have between 1-2,000 species to choose from. Even the bamboo specialists can’t agree on the actual number of bamboo breeds. But no need to split hairs over speciation. Today we’d like to help you narrow it down to the 10 best bamboo varieties for your garden.
Two Types of Bamboo
Some people like to say that there are types of bamboo: runners and clumpers. Of course, that’s a sweeping generalization, because, like I said, there are really something like 1-2,000 species of bamboo. Not only that, but there are also slow runners and aggressive clumpers, and a number of other factors that could affect the growth habit of your bamboo. Having said that, this still remains the simplest way to think of bamboos.
Most bamboos are runners, meaning that they send out rhizome roots racing underground in pursuit of moisture and elbow room. If you’re looking to plant a privacy hedge that will spread quickly along a fence line, or you just enjoy watching a voracious plant as it wields its dominion over the landscape, then this is the way to go. They also tend to be the easiest to find, especially at non-specialist nurseries, because they do propagate so easily.
But be careful, and think before you plant. The old adage about bamboo says that, “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap.” In other words, you might not think it’s a runner after the first year, but by the third or forth year, you almost certainly will, and so will your neighbors.
Running bamboos have no respect for property lines. If the neighbor to the one side is regularly sprinkling his perfectly manicured lawn, or the neighbor on the other side is constantly irrigating her prize-winning rose bushes, it won’t take long (especially in a dry place like California) for those eager rhizomes to sniff out those delicious water sources and wreak havoc on the roses, the lawn, the vegetable patch, the herb garden, and pretty much everything in sight. There goes the neighborhood!
So how do you avoid this un-neighborly catastrophe? Here are a few options:
- Allow your running bamboo plenty of room to spread. If you’re gardening in a tightly-squeezed suburban subdivision, then you probably will not have plenty of room. If you’re trying to fill out and green up some vacant acreage, then that’s more like it.
- Keep you bamboo well-contained. There are a number of ways to do this, ranging from a simple solution like planting into a old wine barrel (or half barrel) to burying any manner of rhizome barrier into the ground. Just remember, with time and pressure, there’s almost nothing that stop those roots from spreading. So whatever you put into the ground, plant it thick and deep. (Check out our tips on bamboo containment.)
- Get your hands dirty and prune your bamboo regularly. That means not only trimming back the shoots, but going underground and cutting back those vigorous roots.
- Look for smaller and slower running bamboos, like some of the ground cover varieties. But keep an eye on them. Sometimes they look sleepy on the surface, even while the roots are constructing an invisible empire underground.
- Find some clumping bamboo and plant those instead.
The fact is, many of the most interesting and attractive bamboo species are runners. They also tend to be less expensive and easier to find in nurseries. So now that you’ve been warned, here are a few great bamboo varieties to look for.
You’ll definitely want to allow some extra space for this tremendous timber bamboo that easily reaches 20 to 50 feet in height, with culms up to 4 or 5 inches in diameter. As you can imagine, it will also have a pretty massive footprint. But for anyone who’s got the space for it, this majestic grass could be a prized specimen and the envy of bamboo enthusiasts all around.
I planted one of these in my suburban backyard in San Luis Obispo, and kept it in a 15 gallon pot for fear of it overtaking the neighborhood. After 5 or 6 years it never looked unhealthy, but it sure never reached the kind of stature described above. It really needs room to spread out.
Another very impressive variety, its regal appearance has earned this one the nickname of “Temple Bamboo”, which also happens to be FAR easier to pronounce! This bamboo can get to be 20 or 30 feet in height, but its richly colored culms don’t grown much larger than an inch or so in diameter.
I also planted one of these in a 15 gallon container, but it didn’t take long to break out and proliferate around the yard. But with such handsome shoots, I just couldn’t bring myself to uproot them. This really is a beautiful species of bamboo.
Phyllostachys nigra (black bamboo)
The distinctively dark brown (not quite black) shoots make this one of the most popular strains of bamboo, and any nursery that sells bamboo is likely to have some of this on hand. As the plant matures, the dark color of the culms grows richer, making for a very attractive contrast against the bright green leaves.
Pseudosasa japonica (arrow bamboo)
Also quite popular, arrow bamboo earned its name from its long, strong, straight poles, which Samurai warriors used to make arrows. Today it’s a great choice for planting in shady corners of the garden. Also, though technically classified as a runner, it has a far more restrained growth habit than most bamboos of that class. The broad green leaves make this a very vibrant and attractive specimen.
Dwarf Green Stripe
One of the few bamboos that can be cultivated as a ground cover, this one makes an excellent accent alongside larger bamboo varieties, around Japanese pines, and in any sort of Asian themed garden setting. Its compact size also makes it much easier to contain, despite its being a runner. Just keep an eye on those roots!
While the most impressive varieties of bamboo tend to be runners, the conscientious gardener is always on the look out for a good breed of clumping bamboo. They might not always display the awesome meter-a-day growth of some fabled bamboos of the tropics, or the massive culms that make you want to reach out your arms for a bear hug, but they can lend an exotic charm to any small scale zen oasis or Japanese garden.
Now before you rush over to Home Depot, or your nearest box store discount nursery, and start asking sales clerks for their recommendations on clumping bamboos, keep in mind that very few people — nursery employees included — can reliably distinguish a runner from a clumper. And as long as clumpers remain more expensive, more sought after, and harder to come by, it’s easy to imagine how unreliable certain sales people could be.
With that in mind, I’d like to recommend a couple of my favorite bamboo nurseries in California: Bamboo Sourcery in Sebastopol and Bamboo Giant near Santa Cruz. These guys really know their bamboo. But if you want my opinion, here are a few of my favorite clumpers.
An old favorite, Oldhamii is said to be the most widely grown variety of bamboo in all of the United States. You might say it’s an old standard. Native to Taiwan, it does have a preference for the tropical climes and is not very cold-hardy. But with shoots reaching up to 60 feet or more (under ideal conditions) and growing up to about 4 inches in diameter, it’s certainly an impressive specimen, particularly for a clumper. You’d have to agree, it’s an oldie but a goodie!
Otatea acuminata (Mexican Weeping Bamboo)
With its slender stalks and delicate, wispy leaves, this delightfully compact specimen looks good in nearly any garden. All it needs is a gentle breeze to make it really come alive. It also prefers warmer climates. I grew some in a cool, coastal climate, and it always looked happy; it just never grew very big.
Buddha’s Belly (subspecies of Bambusa vulgaris)
With a catchy named derived from the bulbous shape of its internodes, Buddha’s Belly is one of the easiest species to recognize and one of the largest varieties of clumping bamboo. Whatever it lacks in straight and narrow poise, it more than makes up for with portly character. This subtropical variety also does better in the warmer zones.
Exquisitely elegant, this variety is easy to recognize with its green and yellow racing stripes. Even amidst a great collection of bamboos, this one is sure to stand out. In ideal conditions, it can get up to 20 feet, and the culms grow to about 1 inch in diameter.
Himalayacalamus hookerianus (Himalayan Blue)
The richly colored, powdery blue culms give this bamboo an especially attractive appearance. Indigenous to the mountains of China, it also does better in warmer and subtropical regions. But it grows especially well around ponds and in containers. Culinary tip: fresh shoots of the Himalayan Blue are edible are said to be quite tasty. Anyone for stir fry?
I hope you’ve found these suggestions helpful. If you have a favorite bamboo that we were unable to include in this short list, go ahead and let us know in the comments section. Meanwhile, happy gardening!
Photo Credit: Wikipedia