It begins with the realization that “lucky bamboo” is not actually bamboo at all. And then they tell you there are two kinds of bamboo: runners and clumpers. But then you discover that there are more than 1,200 distinct species of bamboo, plus a few hundred cultivars and subspecies, bringing the total number of distinct varieties closer to 2,000. And now you want to know how to tell them all apart.

Identifying different species of bamboo can be very difficult. The best technique is to spend a lot of time among the bamboo and get to know as many varieties as possible. The most helpful indicating factors include the root structure, the size and shape of the culms, the size and shape of the leaves, and the branching pattern. Experts will pay close attention to smaller details in the fresh shoots, the culm sheaths, and the internodal joints.

The following article — first published in May 2021 and most recently updated in April 2024 — should serve as an introductory lesson in identifying bamboo species, filled with lots of photographs for reference. To become a real expert in recognizing bamboo, a person could spend a lifetime studying the leaves and branches of these remarkable grasses. But the bamboo pictures and scientific names shown below will give beginner and intermediate gardeners a reasonable orientation and a place to get started.

NOTE: The featured image, at the top of the article, shows four stunning species. On the left are Himalayacalamus hookerianus (Himalayan blue bamboo), Bambusa beecheyana, and Borinda fungosa (Chocolate bamboo). On the right is Dendrocalamus minor (Ghost bamboo).

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Check out the Bambu Batu Bamboo Species Guide for a comprehensive reference.

Identifying running bamboo

It’s true that we can divide the many species of bamboo into runners and clumpers, although it’s not always a perfectly clear distinction. Botanically speaking, bamboo has two types of rhizome systems, which are running (technically known as leptomorph or monopodial) and clumping (pachymorph or sympodial). But some running types actually run pretty slowly. And some clumping bamboo tends to spread out; we call those open clumpers.

Phyllostachys bissetii branching
Phyllostachys bissetii displays the telltale signs, two branches coming off the node and a groove running along the same side. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

Finding Phyllostachys

The genus Phyllostachys is made up of super vibrant, running bamboos. They are some of the most vigorous and fast-spreading of all bamboos. And this can be a point of concern for many growers.

The good news is that, as a genus, Phyllostachys are some of the easiest to recognize. Look for the shallow groove that runs lengthwise on alternating sides of the culms (stems), in between the joints. These are called sulcus grooves, and they’re a very likely marker of a running Phyllostachys.

Another reliable way to recognize these bamboos is by counting the branches at each node. Phyllostachys generally have two major branches at the node, roughly the same size, sometimes accompanied by a few minor branches. Members of the genus Semiarundinaria, by contrast, will have three main branches per node.

Phyllostachys nigra black bamboo Paris
Phyllostachys nigra is the classic black bamboo. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

Black bamboo is probably the easiest of these to recognize, because of its eponymous color. As seen in the photo above, there are two branches, equal in size, growing out at the node. Just above the node, on the same side, you can see a narrow groove running lengthwise, upwards.

There are several timber species of Phyllostachys, and they can be very hard to tell apart. Even the experts will argue whether it’s a P. bambusoides, P. vivax, P. edulis or P. nigra ‘Henon’. Vivax is typically the largest species, sometimes more than 5 inches in girth. But each species performs differently in different soils and climates.

Phyllostachys edulis Moso bamboo Hornaday
Moso Bamboo, or P. edulis, is one of the biggest species of Phyllostachys. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

Henon is a subspecies of Black Bamboo, but with grayish-green culms. It also goes by the common name Giant Gray Bamboo.

Some of the most interesting Phyllostachys are the striped cultivars. P. aureosulcata ‘Spectabilis’ and P. aura ‘Aureocaulis’ are especially eye-catching. The striping is similar, but ‘Spectabilis’ sometimes grows with an exotic zigzag.

Vivax Bamboo Nursery
Fred Hornaday luxuriates in a grove of Phyllostachys vivax, another running timber bamboo.

Sorting Pseudosasa and Semiarundinaria

If the bamboo culms don’t have the sulcus groove, then it’s probably not a Phyllostachys. (Although sometimes the groove is too subtle to detect). But it could still be a runner. Other ornamental running bamboos include Pseudosasa and Semiarundinaria. These are medium-sized, upright bamboos, with many popular species for gardens. S. fastuosa, or Temple Bamboo, is one of the more popular species of Semiarundinaria. The mature culms often take on a burgundy hue, especially in shady spots and during the cooler months.

Semiarundinaria fastuosa Temple Bamboo

Pseudosasa is generally somewhat shorter, with thicker, greener foliage, while leaves of Semiarundinaria grow more in tufts, and have a lighter green color. P. japonica, or Arrow Bamboo, is the most popular species of Pseudosasa. P. amabilis, or Tonkin Bamboo, is also fairly common. The culm sheaths are late to fall on both of these species, but the sheaths on P. amabilis are harrier.

Arrow bamboo Pseudosasa japonica Hornaday
Pseudosasa japonica, or Arrow Bamboo, has thin culms, clustered closely, with persistent culm sheaths. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

Distinguishing dwarf bamboo

Most species of dwarf bamboo are also runners. Despite their short stature, their roots can be very quick to spread. The most common genera of dwarf bamboos are Sasa and Pleioblastus. The most popular varieties have striped leaves, either green and white or green and yellow.

Pleioblastus fortunei Sonoma Hornaday
Pleioblastus fortunei with distinctive stripes. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

The genus Pleioblastus is fairly popular, with numerous species of dwarf bamboo. But not every “dwarf” variety only grows a couple feet tall. Some species of Pleioblastus can grow 10 or 15 feet tall, and are easily mistaken for Phyllostachys. They tend to have thinner, more lightly-colored leaves than Phyllostachys.

Pleioblastus linearis Hornaday
Pleioblastus linearis grows larger than its close cousins of the same genus. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

Sasa is another genus of diminutive bamboo ornamentals. Of Japanese origin, they typically have shorter, broader leaves, with a deeper green hue. They make very attractive ground covers. Sasella is closely related, but these compact bamboos generally have slender, more delicate leaves.

Dwarf bamboo in garden
Sasa veitchii provides an attractive ground cover in a busy garden. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

Check your Chimonobambusa

A fairly exotic genus of bamboo, but Chimonobambusa is worth looking out for. And with their strikingly unusual culms, they are pretty easy to recognize.

Chimonobambusa tumidinoda bamboo species

C. tumidinoda, or tumidissinoda, is nearly unmistakable with its bulging joints. The name tumidissinoda actually means “tumescent (or swollen) nodes”. C. quadrangularis, or Square Bamboo, is another one to watch for. As you might guess, its slender culms are almost square in shape.

Chimonobambusa square bamboo quadrangularis
Square bamboo, Chimonobambus quadrangularis, takes shape in a shady setting. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

Classifying clumping bamboo

If you poke around at the base of a mature bamboo plant, or examine the distribution of fresh shoots, you can usually tell if it’s a runner or a clumper. Clumping bamboos don’t have those long, creeping rhizomes. The plants tend to stay in a tight cluster with a limited footprint.

Also, most clumping bamboo is tropical or subtropical, so you rarely find it growing in colder climates with frost and snow. Unless it’s a Fargesia, which is among the most cold-hardy of all bamboo.

Bamboo species identification with Natalia Reategui: Bambusa balcooa
Identifying Bambusa balcooa

A bevy of Bambusa

Bambusa is one of the most widespread genera of bamboo, with about 150 species. They come in a range of shapes and sizes, but mostly they’re buttery yellow and pretty big around. Some are striped, similar to certain a species of Phyllostachys (see above). But the arrangement of branches will quickly set them apart.

Bambusa vulgaris Vittata painted bamboo
A striped variety of Bambusa vulgaris, with multiple, unevenly-sized branches at each nodal joint. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

In India and Southeast Asia, it’s not uncommon to come across giant thorny bamboo, Bambusa blumeana, but it’s not a species you’d want to plant in your garden. Villagers in rural Thailand plant this species around their gardens to keep the elephants out. It’s also got juicy shoots that are prized for their culinary qualities.

Bambusa blumeana Thorny bamboo Hornaday
Giant Thorny Bamboo is a force of nature. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

Hip to Himalayacalamus

The genus Himalayacalamus is exotic but very popular among collectors. Native to the lower elevations of the Himalayas, these bamboos prefer cooler, shadier settings. They are somewhat cold hardy, and the clumping roots make them desirable among gardeners. Their coloration is the easiest way to identify them.

Himalayacalamus hookerianus SF Hornaday
Himalayacalamus hookerianus is more commonly referred to as Himalayan Blue Bamboo. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

Himalayan Blue, pictured above, is very similar to Nepalese Blue (Himalayacalamus porcatus), except that the former is about twice as tall. H. hookeranius typically grows 15-20 feet tall, while H. porcatus usually only gets 5 or 10 feet tall. In both cases, the culms are normally 1-1.5 inches thick, and the leaves are notably slender and delicate, adding to their graceful appearance.

Drepanostachyum is closely related and often mistaken with Himalayacalamus. The main difference is in the branching structure. Drepanostachyum culms have many equally sized branches at each node, whereas Himalayacalamus will have one dominant branch.

Frost-friendly Fargesia

If you have a clumping bamboo that survives in the snow, you can be pretty sure it’s a Fargesia. Especially popular in Europe, Canada and northern swaths of the US, it is also recognizable for its long leaves and drooping culms.

Fargesia murielae clumping bamboo
Gardeners seeking a cold-hardy, clumping bamboo invariably go with Fargesia. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

F. murielae is considered one of the most attractive species of this genus. F. nitida is also very noteworthy for its colorful culms which earned it the nickname Blue Fountain Bamboo. Another colorful variety, F. scabrida has shoots that come in shades of orange, blue and purple, eventually turning deep green. But the blues and hues on these bamboo won’t be as bright and vibrant as those Himalayan varieties above.

Tropical timber bamboo

The most impressive of all bamboos, at least in terms of size, are the tropical clumpers. Genera like Dendrocalamus and Gigantochloa have some truly fabulous specimens. As tropical species, don’t expect to find many growing north of Florida or Southern California.

Dendrocalamus giganteus species 2

Dendroclamus includes the largest species of all bamboo. Although they are technically clumpers, their pachymorph rhizomes often stretch out several feet from the main plant. The ariel roots that sprout in rings around the lower nodal joints are a distinguishing feature.

If you come across a giant timber bamboo in South or Central America, you can be almost certain it’s a Guadua, native to the highlands of Colombia. These formidable bamboos are very important in that part of the world, but they need to be close to the equator and don’t really grow in North America.

Dendroclamus asper Hitam
Dendrocalamus asper is commercially important, and the black cultivar is an amazing ornamental.

Elsewhere in Latin America, if you come across a medium-sized stalk of bamboo, you can try sawing it in half. If it’s solid in the middle, rather than hollow, then you can bet it belongs to the genus Chusquea. These temperate clumpers actually grow quite well in North America, and the solid poles are great for building and crafts.

Bamboo species identification with Natalia Reategui: Dendrocalamus strictus
How to recognize Dendrocalamus strictus

Expert opinions on bamboo identification

Because identifying bamboo species can be such a challenge, you may prefer to consult an expert. The best way to go about this is by providing a good assortment of photos.

Take one picture that captures the whole shape of the plant. This will show the overall growth habit, the general arrangement of the leaves, and whether the culms are fully upright or arching. Also, take a close-up picture of the nodal joints, so you can see how many branches are coming off, and examine their relative sizes. A photo of the base of the plant, where the culms emerge from the soil is also helpful, especially if there are fresh, young shoots still developing. Finally, a close-up shot of some leaves can be useful, showing the arrangement of the leaves and their position along the stems.

Semiarundinaria fastuosa bamboo closeup
Close-up photo helps to identify Semiarundinaria fastuosa.

In many cases, if the photos are clear and well-focussed, this will be enough for a bamboo expert to identify the species. But they might only be able to narrow it down to two or three members of a certain genus. Sometimes it’s necessary to observe some minute features over the course of a growing season. Anyway, you’ll know enough to know what sort of sun, water and soil requirements your bamboo has. Beyond that, it’s all just sort of academic anyway. So good luck, and happy growing!

Further reading

If you enjoyed learning a little bit about bamboo species identification, you won’t want to miss these other in-depth articles about the wondrous diversity of bamboo.