Black bamboo remains one of the most popular varieties of bamboo. And it comes as no surprise. Black is beautiful, after all. But the world of bamboo is vast and mysterious. This subfamily of grasses includes something like 1,500 or more species and cultivars (subspecies), and more than one of them is black. So which species of grass do we refer to as Black Bamboo?
Phyllostachys nigra is the species that we most commonly designate as black bamboo. This is a temperate, cold hardy bamboo in the Arundinarieae tribe, with vigorously running rhizome roots. It also has a cultivar, P. nigra ‘Henon’, a timber bamboo that’s more grayish-green than black. In the tropics and subtropics, you can find Timor black (Bambusa lako), Java black (Gigantochloa atroviolacea) and Black asper (Dendrocalamus asper ‘Hitam’). These clumping varieties are more stately and impressive, but poorly suited for most climates in North America.
In the following article we’ll take a closer look at these various species of black bamboo, their distinct characteristics, and the pros and cons of including them in your own garden.
Why grow black bamboo?
Most people probably have a pretty specific idea of what bamboo looks like, yet the plant actually comes in an enormous variety of sizes, shapes and colors. Like most vegetation, bamboo has green leaves. But the stems, or culms, of a bamboo plant can be deep green, buttery yellow, blue, gray, or even magenta. Some of the most attractive bamboos have stripes on their culms. And of course there’s black bamboo.
If you only have one bamboo plant in your garden, black bamboo might not be your first choice. If you have several, however, then adding a black species for a bit of variety is a great idea. The contrast of black bamboo poles amidst a grove of greens and yellows can produce a striking effect.
Even so, black bamboo does look beautiful on its own. Because of its bright green foliage, you already get that sense of contrast just between the leaves and the culms. To really highlight the beauty of your exotic specimen, you can try training some small spotlights on them. The nighttime lighting, shining up from below, can really showcase the vibrant colors and create interesting shadows on your bamboo.
In addition to beautifying your garden, black bamboo can also be harvested and used for making some lovely arts, crafts and furniture. Even if you have no woodworking skills, you can gather a few canes of bamboo in a tall, oriental vase and stand them in a corner for a dash of Feng Shui. Or use a pole for something as simple as a curtain rod. And with a bit more carpentry prowess, you can make some wind chimes, a picture frame or even a bamboo coffee table.
Species of black bamboo
For bamboo growers in North America, Phyllostachys nigra is one of the most popular of all species, and it’s synonymous with black bamboo. This medium-sized species comes from China. It is attractive, hardy and easy to grow. Culms can get 20-30 feet tall in ideal conditions, and 2 inches in diameter. These plants are hardy to about 0º F, so cold winters are not a problem.
Like all species of Phyllostachys, this bamboo has running rhizomes, so it spreads rather aggressively and has the potential to become invasive. Be sure to take proper precautions to contain this bamboo so it doesn’t get out of control.
New shoots come up green, but gradually turn dark brown and black with age. This generally happens within the first or second year. The poles keep their color after harvesting, so they are very popular for crafts and woodworking.
There are at least two subspecies of P. nigra of particular interest. ‘Henon’, sometimes called Gray bamboo or Giant gray, is an excellent choice of timber bamboo. Some authors believe Henon could be the original species, from which P. nigra evolved. This towering variety has beautiful, greenish-gray culms that can get up to 50 or 60 feet tall and more than 4 inches thick. It’s especially popular on the West Coast, where it performs much better than most other timber species. Cold hardy to -5º or -10º F.
P. nigra ‘Bory’, or Tiger bamboo, is another, more exotic cultivar. Closer in size to Giant gray, Tiger bamboo is an impressive species, but instead of turning black it has irregular brown patches. Sometimes it’s also called Leopard bamboo, which may be a more accurate description of its markings. It’s a difficult variety to find, but not hard to grow. It’s cold hardy like the others, and also tolerates heat and drought.
Bambusa lako, or Timor black
Timor black is an excellent alternative to the fast spreading and potentially invasive Phyllostachys nigra. This clumping species of Bambusa is easier to control and produces spectacular canes, up to 50 or 60 feet tall and easily 4 inches thick. New shoots come up bright green, but turn shiny, black with age. The glossy black sheen makes this one of the most attractive of all bamboos, but it is a tropical variety that cannot withstand freezing temperatures. Native to the island of Timor, this is a great choice in warmer places like Florida and Hawaii.
Gigantochloa atroviolacea, or Java black
The tropical genus Gigantochloa includes about 70 species of clumping bamboo, widespread throughout southern Asia and New Guinea. Their formidable girth, large leaves and thick foliage make for some very attractive ornamental specimens. But they need a tropical or subtropical setting to really do well.
Java Black is a great clumping alternative to the more common black bamboo. Similar to Bambusa lako (Timor Black), but with more arching culms. Canes grow 40-50 feet tall and 4 inches thick, turning black more quickly, but not getting as shiny.
G. atter is another very tall and upright black bamboo from this genus, with thick culms that make an excellent construction material.
Dendrocalamus asper ‘Hitam’, or Black asper
In the right climate and with enough space, this is a spectacular bamboo. In its native habitat, Indonesia, this tropical monster can grow 100 feet tall and up 12 inches thick, making it one of the most massive bamboos of them all. Outside of the tropic or subtropic environs, however, this species will languish. It can survive a mild frost, but it won’t thrive. Not as dark and shiny as some of the other black bamboos, the culms of Black asper have more of a dusty, dark brown look. Either way, it’s a majestic specimen, and if you can’t grow it in your own climate, keep an eye out for it next time you’re in Bali!
If you found this discussion interesting, you might also enjoy some of the following articles about bamboo speciation.
- Bambusa oldhamii: The most popular bamboo
- Phyllostachys edulis ‘Heterocycla’: Tortoise shell bamboo
- Buddha belly: Bamboo of the highest calling
- Blue bamboo: Species that stand out
- Tropical bamboo
- Giant bamboo
FEATURED IMAGE: Phyllostachys nigra