If a little bit of bamboo is good, then a little more bamboo must be even better. So, when you’re growing bamboo, it’s natural to want to increase your numbers by propagating more plants. Maybe you have an unusually attractive species, and you want more of them in pots or different places around your garden. Or, if you have some super vigorous bamboo that’s already spreading out, you may want to find a way to share the wealth with your bamboo-loving friends. Whatever your motivations, there are a few different ways of propagating bamboo, but one of them is especially easy.
There are basically three methods of propagating bamboo, which include taking cuttings from the rhizomatous roots, taking cuttings from young culms (stems), and growing directly from seed. In the vast majority of cases, root cuttings are going to be the fastest and easiest way to propagate bamboo. Seeds are difficult to find, and slow to take off, but the results can certainly be rewarding.
In the following article we’ll explain these three different techniques, and clarify the pros and cons of each one. Ultimately, you’ll find that the more you divide bamboo, the more it multiplies!
Propagating bamboo by rhizomes and root cuttings
In nature, bamboo’s most effective method of propagation and renewal is by way of underground expansion. In other words, the roots spread out, and as they do so, they continually produce new shoots which quickly grow into towering poles. Not only is this bamboo’s most effective natural strategy, but industrious gardeners can also hijack the technique for themselves.
But before you start digging, it’s important to recognize the distinction between running bamboo and clumping bamboo. Runners have long rhizomes that grow parallel to the ground and outward, away from the main plant. As they expand, roots will grow out from the nodes of the rhizomes, and eventually the rhizomes will send fresh shoots growing upward. Refer to the image below.
Clumping bamboos, on the other hand, have compact root systems, in which the rhizomes curve upwards and tend to produce new shoots close together, right next to the main plant.
It will be a lot easier to propagate bamboo from a running rhizome than a clumping one, but it can be done with either. If you have a running bamboo, you will probably realize, at some point, that the plant has an unstoppable urge to spread, and you have more than enough rhizomes to work with. As part of maintaining your bamboo, you probably need to dig into the soil periodically to cut back the rhizomes, if it’s in the ground. If it’s in a pot, you’ll need to transplant the bamboo every so often, and divide the root ball into smaller units when you do so.
Rhizome propagation of bamboo is best done in the spring time, when the new shoots are just budding. You’ll also have plenty of good growing season time to look forward to, and for the cuttings to get established.
- Start by giving your mother plant a good watering. Do this one day ahead of time, so the soil is damp but not soaked. Generally, bamboo likes to be fairly moist, but not soggy. And especially in a stressful time like during a rhizome division, you want to keep the plant happy.
- Have some small pots ready for placing the transplants. One-gallon size will probably do. If you have more ambitious plans for larger cuttings with culms on them, you can use a five-gallon. Smaller cutting should go into pots, while larger one can either go into larger pots or right into the ground. But beginners should probably stick with smaller cuttings.
- Along with the pots, you want to have some good soil on hand. Bamboo prefers something rich, mixed with organic compost or manure. And it needs good drainage. Something nice and loamy so you can water it fairly often without it getting waterlogged.
- And don’t forget your tools: A size appropriate spade for the size of your dig; and some good clippers to snip through the rhizomes.
- If you’re dealing with a particularly messy rhizome network, or dividing a bamboo rootball that’s been bound in a pot, you might want to use a Sawsall, or other kind of reciprocating saw. This can also help you make a clean cut if you’re working with a clumping bamboo or larger specimen.
Whether your mother plant is in the ground or in a container, you’ll want to look for a section of rhizome furthest away from the core. If it’s a running bamboo like Phyllostachys and it’s in the ground, you could have rhizome tips several feet away from the main plant. With the help of a sharp hand shovel, you should be able to lift the ends of the rhizomes out of the soil and follow them towards the plant.
Now find some sections that looks healthy and vigorous. Lots of fresh roots are good sign, the soft, white tendrils coming off of the rhizomes. And look for some small buds or shoots, like in the photo above. A section of rhizome 4 to 6 inches long, with at least a few nodes or joints, and with 2 or 3 buds or shoots would be ideal. If you’re propagating from a larger grove of running bamboo, you can really dig up almost anything as long it has some good roots on it. But if you’re taking a cutting from a container, you can settle for something smaller.
Place one segment of rhizome cutting into each pot. Keep the rhizomes parallel to the ground, as much as possible, and the shoots pointing upward. They don’t have to be perfect, as long as they’re heading upward. Cover the roots and rhizomes completely, with about 2 or 3 inches of soil. If the shoots are longer than that, they will show above the dirt. But if they are only small buds, they might remain submerged under the dirt. Too much dirt is better than not enough.
Continue to water the potted cuttings as you would with other bamboo, keeping them moist but not soggy. A mister or spray bottle helps to keep them damp. They may be ready to transplant by the end of summer, or you may need to wait for the following spring. In a climate with harsh, freezing winters, you’ll need to wait for the plant to get fully established before exposing it to the elements.
Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a 100 percent success rate. You should see from the new shoots if the cutting survived. But sometimes the shoots remain dormant, while there’s lots of activity underground. Keep an eye on the drainage holes on the bottoms of the pots for signs of root growth.
If you have a clumping bamboo, things will be bunched up much closer together. And don’t try to take a cutting unless the plant is already mature and very well established, at least 4 or 5 years old. Then look for a outlier, a new shoot with a little more distance between itself and the main plant. This will indicate a longer rhizome segment, which is helpful. You might even be able to extract a small clump of 2 or 3 three shoots somewhat removed from the main clump.
A Sawsall will be the most effective tool to get into those tight spaces and make a clean cut. Just keep as much root mass as possible intact. Ultimately, a well-established bamboo plant will recover quickly, so don’t be afraid to take chances.
Propagation from root bound bamboo
If you have a root bound bamboo that’s languishing in a pot it has outgrown, then propagation will be your best solution. When a bamboo gets root bound, the roots can’t stretch out and the plant stops producing new growth. Part of the problem is that it gets so impacted that the water can’t soak into the pot and reach the roots. But don’t worry, there’s a cure.
Once you know the signs of overcrowding in a pot, you can prevent this from happening to other bamboo plants in the future. But for now, your best option is to pull the whole thing out of the pot, which might also require you to destroy the pot. Either way, do you whatever you need to do to get it out. And have your tools and watering can (or garden hose) close by.
Once you get the bamboo out of the pot, you’ll see where the rhizomes have hit the pot and then turned back on themselves. The result is a knotted mess, and you’ll probably need a saw to cut through it. I would start by sawing off the bottom couple inches of the root ball. Discard this disc-shaped mesh, and now you can see what’s happening in the roots.
With a combination of tools and brute force, you’ll have to saw, cut or tear the root mass apart. This can be pretty difficult, as the roots are all attached to the canes which might be 5 or 10 feet tall. You might find some sections come off more easily than others. And you could end up a total of 3 or 4 viable sections, even more, depending on the size of the original pot.
Once you’ve separated your potential survivors, pot them with some fresh soil (see above) and water them immediately. You want to give them a very thorough soaking at this time, as the roots have probably been starved for water. You may need to prop the plants up somehow, using a stake or perhaps leaning them against a fence, until they have re-established themselves. Not everything will survive, but anything that does is a victory, because if you hadn’t transplanted it, the whole root bound plant would have died.
Advantages of rhizome propagation
Propagation by roots and rhizomes is my first choice with bamboo, because that’s already where so much of the plant’s life is centered. It’s like the base of operations, the central nervous system.
Typically, a bamboo plant won’t start producing fresh shoots and new culms until the roots have established a foothold. So it just makes sense to start a new plant from a healthy section of root stock. The roots have a tenacious will to live, so if you can transplant an intact section of roots, with or without stalks or culms, there’s a good chance it will survive.
If a root cutting doesn’t survive, it’s usually not a tremendous loss. But if it does, you should start to see significant growth within the same growing season, and probably no later than the following spring.
Propagating bamboo with culm cuttings
With many plants, especially houseplants, the easiest method of propagation is to simply take a cutting of fresh stem and leaves and place it in a glass of water. Within 5 or 10 days, the stem is growing roots, and then you can just plant it in the dirt. It’s not so easy with bamboo though. This method is sometimes called cloning.
I didn’t realize this was even possible with bamboo until a couple years ago. In fact, this is not a common method for propagating bamboo, and it doesn’t work with all kinds. It seems to work best with certain tropical, clumping varieties, like Bambusa, Dendrocalamus and Guadua.
Stem cuttings or culm cutting are most successful with culms that are 1 to 2 years old. You want a fully grown culm, but one that is still putting out new branches. For best results, make the cuttings about one foot long, and make sure you have a nodal joint one every cutting. There will probably be lateral branches coming out of these joints already. Ideally, you should cut just a few inches below each node, so that about 75 percent of the cutting is above the node.
The new growth, both roots and culms, will emerge from the joints. One trick to help promote this growth is to score the bamboo at the joints. Using a sharp blade, make a shallow cut on the underside of each young branches, at the joint, right where they come off of the main culm. Typically you’ll have 2 or 3 branches at each node. You can cut these branches back to within a couple nodes from the joint.
Keep the cuttings wet and place them straight into soil. For propagation purposes, try mixing a lot of perlite with the soil to make it more fluffy. This allows the soil moist without it being saturated, and moisture is key. Bury the cutting upright, submerging about 1/2 to 2/3 of each cutting, being sure to cover at least one nodal joint under soil. Alternatively, you can also lay it down horizontally and bury the entire cutting.
At this point, you can also fill the hollow, upper portion of the bamboo culms with water. This helps to keep the cutting moist. Keep the cuttings in a relatively warm spot, out of the direct sunlight. A greenhouse is perfect. Keep the soil moist, and within a few months you should see new growth coming out of the branching joints on most of your cuttings. Don’t expect 100 percent success.
Using the same methodology as with culm cutting, you can also propagate certain types of bamboo from branch cuttings. Use young branches, and include a nodal joint on each cutting. You can place the cutting in water until you see fresh growth, or place them directly into soil. It’s very helpful to use a rooting hormone to increase your success rate. You can make your own rooting hormone with saliva, diluted apple cider vinegar, diluted honey, fresh aloe vera gel, or a solution of crushed aspirin.
Lucky bamboo cuttings
Usually when people talk about taking bamboo cuttings and growing them directly in water, what they are actually talking about is Lucky Bamboo. But this is something completely different. Lucky bamboo is actually a type of Dracaena, which is not a bamboo at all. It’s not even a grass. But it is extremely easy to propagate from cuttings.
Growing bamboo from seed
This is one of the slowest ways to propagate bamboo. It can also be frustrating because it’s so hard to find bamboo seeds. As you can imagine from the photo below, the tiny seeds can also be very easy to misplace.
Unlike most grasses, bamboo does not flower on a regular annual basis. Some bamboos have a flowering period of more than 100 years. And others flower very unpredictably. And because of the other easier ways of propagating, most gardeners won’t bother with the seeds. But if you do have a bamboo plant flower and go to seed, you should definitely gather and save the seeds. They can be quite valuable. And it’s a better way of sharing bamboo with long distance friends.
Sprouting bamboo seeds is a lot like sprouting any other kind of seed. There are various planting mediums that work especially well for keeping the seeds moist without getting soggy. Coconut fiber is popular. Most nurseries will carry a range of options, including germination trays and such.
As the seedlings grow, they will be very sensitive. You will need to prevent them from drying out, getting too much direct sun, or from getting too cold. A greenhouse or other indoor setting will probably be best. It can take quite a while for your bamboo babies to be strong enough to strike out on their own. You may need to keep them indoors for a couple years. By this time, you will probably have given each seedling a name and a personality. The parental attachment is real.
Unlike cuttings, or clones, which are genetically identical to their mother plant, seedling will express some genetic variation. The same way siblings differ from one another and from their parents, seedlings will each be unique. The differences could be negligible, but you might end up with something unusual or even a brand new cultivar if you’re real lucky.
You can find individuals on eBay, Amazon and elsewhere online, selling bamboo seeds, but it can be risky. If you thought it was hard to identify the species of a living bamboo, just imagine trying to identify a seed. You really have to take the seller’s word for it.
Bamboo is a fantastic plant to work with. Whether you’re crafting, building or just gardening, there’s no end to the sorts of experiments you can conduct. Propagating bamboo is one of the most interesting activities of all. The easiest method is just to dig up some roots, with or without bamboo stalks, and replant them. That’s best if you’re working with running bamboo
If you’re growing tropical bamboo, and you’re feeling a little more adventuresome, you can try making cuttings from a nice, fat culm. Bury the segments and see how the roots grow from the branching joints. Finally, if you’re tired of cloning your own bamboos, and you’re looking for a new species, you can try to get some bamboo seeds. You never know what might come up!
If you’d like to learn more about growing and using bamboo, take a look at some of our most popular articles.
- Growing Bamboo: The complete how-to guide
- Best bamboo varieties for your garden
- Watering your bamboo
- Fertilizing your bamboo
- Preparing your bamboo for winter
- Bamboo anatomy: 9 parts of the bamboo plant
FEATURE PHOTO: Phyllostachys edulis, Moso bamboo, producing massive new shoots (Wikicommons)