If you walk into a bamboo nursery or a botanical garden and see a specimen labeled Bambusa vulgaris, and another identified as Bambusa chungii, you might assume that Bambusa is the genus that includes all species of bamboo. But in fact, it’s one of about 100 different genera of bamboo, which include a total of more than 1,400 bamboo species. Navigating your way through the binomial nomenclature of this massive subfamily of grasses can be challenging, but also fascinating.
With about 150 different species, Bambusa is one of the largest and most diverse genera of bamboo. It includes some of the most popular ornamental bamboos, as well as some of the most economically important species. All Bambusas are clumping types, and generally speaking, they are of tropical and subtropical origin. They are among the largest of timber bamboos, and also include a number of colorful, variegated and decorative bamboos. Many species are grown in milder climates in North America, where there’s no risk of severe freezing.
In the following article we’ll take an in-depth look at this intriguing genus, its classification and its characteristics. We’ll also go over several of the most common and important species of Bambusa, helping you to decide if any of them might be right for your garden.
This is part of an ongoing series about different types and species of bamboo. To learn more about this captivating botanical collection, be sure to check out some of these other informative articles.
- Running bamboo
- Genus Phyllostachys: Prolific bamboo for all climates
- Genus Chimonobambusa: Exotic Asian bamboo
- Clumping bamboo
- Genus Chusquea: Solid bamboo of the Americas
- Genus Fargesia: Clumping bamboo for cold climates
- Native bamboos of North America: Arundinaria
Classification of Bamboo and Bambusa
The name Bambusa, seemingly synonymous with bamboo, suggests that this is the single genus of all bamboo species. In fact, there are something like 90 to 120 different genera of bamboo, depending on which botanist you ask. Every type of bamboo, including a total of nearly 2,000 cultivars, is a grass (family Poaceae or Gramineae) and belongs in the subfamily Bambusoideae.
Conventional taxonomy further divides this subfamily into three tribes. Bambusa, like most clumping bamboo, belongs in the tribe of woody, tropical varieties, called Bambuseae. The other important tribe, Arundinarieae, includes all the temperate and predominantly running bamboos, like Phyllostachys and Pleioblastus. A third tribe, Olyreae, somewhat exotic but more closely related to Bambuseae, includes all the herbaceous (or non-woody) bamboos. These odd varieties come mainly from Central and South America.
People like to say there are two kinds of bamboo: runners and clumpers. That’s not perfectly accurate, but it’s a pretty useful simplification that doesn’t require you to keep track of all the botanical nitty gritty. So we can just say that the genus Bambusa is made up of clumpers. And like most clumping bamboos, these are generally tropical and subtropical species.
Characteristics of Bambusa
Most species of Bambusa are native to China and Southeast Asia. Many varieties also come from the Himalayas, Northern Australia, Philippines and New Guinea. As such, these bamboos tend to prefer warmer climates with little risk of freezing, although some species may be cold hardy to about 20º F.
For the most part, Bambusas are relatively large types of bamboo, including some impressive timber species like B. balcooa and B. bambos. As a rule of thumb, if you take a tropical bamboo out of its native habitat and grow it in a more temperate climate, it won’t achieve the same size it does in its homeland. But most of these species are suitable in hardiness zones 8 and up.
With medium to large sizes culms, and thicker than average culm walls, Bambusas provide an ideal material for building and construction. They tend to have smaller branches than many tropical giants, and small to average sized leaves. These characteristics make the plants easy to work with and often very attractive as ornamental specimens. They usually have multiple branches at each node, but only one or two major ones.
Bambusas are one of the few bamboo genera that can be propagated by culm cuttings and branch cuttings. Check out our in-depth article on bamboo propagation to learn more about how to do that.
Species of Bambusa
There are roughly 150 species of bamboo in the genus Bambusa, so we won’t cover them all here. But the following list includes the most ornamentally popular and commercially important species, in alphabetical order.
This is a widely grown species in India and southern Asia, also cultivated commercially in Africa. A great choice in warmer climates, the culms are known for their thick walls, making them a superior building material. Poles can get 60-80 feet tall and 5-6 inches in diameter. Cold hardy to about 25º F, it can grow pretty well in climates like Southern California and Florida.
One of the best species for building and construction, also known as Giant Thorny Bamboo, this variety can get up to 100 feet tall. Its poles have very thick walls, and when growing, the plant has a very dark green appearance. More difficult to grow outside of its native Southeast Asia, it’s cold hardy only to about 30 F.
Native to Malaysia and Indonesia, this species is also called Thorny Bamboo or Spiny Bamboo. Lower branches can be formidable, long and sprawling with sharp thorns. An interesting and impressive species for tropical climates, the culms can get 50-70 feet tall and 4-5 inches thick. Cold tolerant to about 30º F.
This medium-sized species, also called Tropical Blue Bamboo, is better suited as an ornamental than a building material. Growing about 30-40 feet tall, the 1.5-2 inch thick culms come up a powdery blue color and gradually turn a deep blue-green. Tight clumps make for a stunning specimen plant, but they can also serve as an attractive privacy screen when planted together in a row. Adaptable to more climates, cold hardy to about 20º F.
Not be confused with Phyllostachys flexuosa, also known Zigzag Bamboo or Drooping Timber, this tropical clumping species has thorny canes about 20-30 feet tall.
Also called Timor Black, this beautiful black bamboo can grow 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 an unusually attractive species, but it is a tropical variety that cannot withstand freezing temperatures. Native to the island of Timor, this is a great choice in places like Florida and Hawaii.
Bambusa malingensis ‘Seabreeze’
This popular species from Southern China is great in a variety of conditions. As the name suggests, it’s very tolerant of winds and salty air by the seaside. Its tight clumping habit and lateral branches also make for a dense and fast-growing privacy hedge, often growing up 30 feet tall or more. Seabreeze also happens to be one of the more drought-tolerant bamboo species. But like most varieties of Bambusa, it’s not especially cold-hardy. Temperatures below 20º F will usually result in frost damage.
This species has a number of cultivars, including ‘Golden Goddess’, a very popular ornamental for its manageable size and greater hardiness. They only grow about 10 feet tall, with half-inch culms, cold hardy to 15-20º F. Not to be confused with Phyllostachys aurea, also called Golden Bamboo. Another subspecies, ‘Alphonse Karr’, is among the most highly sought after of all ornamental bamboos. Distinctive green stripes on bright yellow culms give this variety a stunning appearance (see image below). Healthy plants can get 20-30 feet tall, with 1.5-2 inch canes. Tolerates temperates as low as 15-20º F.
Sometimes called Giant Timber Bamboo, this is one of the most popular bamboo varieties in all of North America, especially in the milder climates. Oldham’s is one of the more versatile timber bamboos of these genus, hardy to about 20º F. Mature groves can get 50-60 feet tall, with 4 inch thick culms. The majestic, upright culms have a rich yellow color. These plants make for beautiful specimens or centerpieces, but are also very effective as privacy screens.
The most popular cultivar of this species, ‘Gracilis’, also goes by the well-deserved name of Graceful Bamboo. Tall, slender canes, in tight clumps, can get 30 feet tall, arching towards the top for a graceful aspect. Thin culm walls make then poles more flexible but less useful for building. Cold hardy to 15-20º F.
Better known as Buddha’s Belly Bamboo, this popular variety has bulging internodes that make for a remarkable appearance. Ideal as a specimen plant or focal point in the garden, the interesting, deep green culms can grow 20-30 feet tall and 2-3 inches thick. To encourage more bulbous internodes, you can top the culms every year and stress the plant by under-watering it slightly.
Also called “common bamboo”, this species originated in China or East Asia and has proliferated all over the world. It has naturalized in many parts of Asia, and is commonly cultivated in gardens. Impressive culms grow 30-40 feet tall and up to 3 inches thick. It is sometimes called Golden bamboo, which can be confusing, because that name is so widely used. The species has multiple cultivars, at least two of which are very popular as ornamentals.
B. vulgaris ‘Vitatta’
Vitatta or Painted Bamboo formerly went by the name B. striata. Striking, colorful stripes give the culms a beautiful aspect, all the more impressive for their great size, up to 30-40 feet tall and about 3 inches thick. Not cold tolerant below 30º F, but very popular in tropical or subtropical climates.
B. vulgaris cv. Wamin
Another subspecies, commonly known as Dwarf Buddha Belly. This compact clumping bamboo only gets about 10-12 feet tall, and it’s also adaptable for bonsai. The chubby internodes are especially striking on the smaller specimens. Woodworkers also appreciate the knobby culms for their aesthetic appeal.
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
- Pruning your bamboo
- Bamboo anatomy: 9 parts of the bamboo plant
FEATURED PHOTO: Bambusa multiplex in the McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, in Turtle Bay Exploration Park, Redding, California.