Can I grow bamboo in the Great White North?
When you close your eyes and imagine a tropical garden paradise, one of the last places you will think of is Canada. It’s hardly a haven for bamboo lovers, like Indonesia or Hawaii. And for that reason, you might think it’s not possible to grow bamboo in Canada.
Sure, Canada is a wonderful country, and there are many great reasons why you might wish to live there. But the warm sunshine is probably not one of them. Even so, you can actually have real success growing bamboo in Canada.
Yes, of course you can grow bamboo in Canada
In fact, there are many varieties of bamboo that will thrive in the cold and in the snow. Think of the high mountains of Tibet, the plateaux of northern India, and the northernmost islands of Japan.
On the other hand, there are no species of bamboo indigenous to Canada, so you will have to be selective in deciding which varieties to plant. And if you live in the Yukon Territory or some place where the temperature regularly drops below -20º F, it might not work out.
Vancouver and the surrounding areas enjoy the mildest climate in all of Canada, and thus best gardening conditions. For confirmation of this fact, you’ll want to visit the spectacular Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island. But even in Montreal and Toronto, you should be able to grow bamboo, as long as you pick the right varieties.
To help with that selection process, we’ve put together this list of cold-hardy bamboos that will have the best chances of surviving and thriving through those chilly Canadian winters.
Best varieties of bamboo to grow in Canada
There are more than a thousand species of grass in the bamboo family, and the majority of the most popular bamboos for gardening come from the tropics or subtropics, so they much prefer the warmer climates. But with that many varieties to choose from, you can be sure to find a few bamboos will grow happily in the snowy mountain regions and far northern latitudes like Canada.
As a matter of fact, there are dozens of varieties of cold hardy bamboo to consider. Most of them belong to either the Phyllostachys or the Fargesia genus of bamboo. Phyllostachys is one of the most prevalent genera of bamboo, primarily native to China and including about 50 distinct species. Almost every species of Phyllostachys is a fast-spreading runner (with an aggressive rhizome root system), and many of them are cold hardy, down to -5 or -10º F.
Fargesia is another major genus of bamboo, also indigenous to China and Southeast Asia. Unlike Phyllostachys, the Fargesia bamboos are chiefly dense-growing clumpers. This and their cold hardiness have made many varieties of Fargesia very popular among gardeners.
Running bamboo in the cold
- Arundinaria gigantea ‘Macon’: Native to North America, this is considered to be the most cold-tolerant of all bamboos. If this doesn’t survive in your Canadian bamboo grove, nothing will. Cold hardy down to about -25º F. It’s also more tolerant to wet soil than most other bamboos. Slender, upright canes make it ideal for privacy screens, up to 20 feet tall and about 1 inch thick.
- Phyllostachys aureosulcata: The “yellow groove bamboo” is easily recognizable for the yellow stripe that’s visible on the dark green culms. A subspecies, Spectabilis, known as “crookstem bamboo” has shoots that sometimes grow in a zig-zag manner. This visually interesting and attractive variety can grow up to nearly 50 feet in height, even in freezing temperatures. But in zones where it regularly gets below -10 or 15º F, it probably won’t grow more than 10 feet tall.
- Phyllostachys heteroclada f. solida: This subspecies of “water bamboo” is commonly known as “solid bamboo”. It’s one of the few varieties that actually has a solid stem, rather than being hollow inside. It’s also a bit more cold-resistant than ordinary water bamboo, hardy down to -10º F.
- Phyllostachys bissetii: Very dense-growing, with a thick bushy canopy, and very cold hardy. The one-inch shoots will grow up to about 20 feet in height.
- Phyllostachys nuda: A very attractive and cold-hardy species, its shoots get 1-2 inches in diameter and 25-30 feet in height. Young shoots appear very dark, almost black, turning a rich, dark green as they mature, usually with pretty, white rings around the culm nodes.
- Phyllostachys atrovaginata: Popularly known as “incense bamboo”, this variety has a waxy coat that gives the culms a very pleasant fragrance in hot weather or when rubbed. Many gardeners appreciate how fast his bamboo grows, with thick culms of 3 inches or more in diameter and up to about 40 feet in height. Good at temperatures as low as -10 or 15º F.
- Phyllostachys parvifolia: Like water bamboo, the rhizomes of this species are well adapted for wet and saturated soil. Small leaves make the thick, dark green culms stand out, and the white rings around the nodes give them even more character. Fresh shoots of this variety are reputed to be delicious in flavor. Mature shoots can get up to 40 feet tall, and it is cold hardy down to -15º F.
REMEMBER: If you’re planting running bamboo, like any Phyllostachys variety, always use a root barrier. Check out this Deep Root Barrier available from Amazon. Also check out this detailed article on bamboo containment practices.
Clumping bamboo for the cold
- Fargesia murielae: Commonly known as “umbrella bamboo”, many consider this to be among the most beautiful varieties for cultivation. New shoots have a light blue hue, turning dark green and yellow with age. Growing this bamboo in a shady area will help preserve the rich blue shade. Thin shoots will get about 12 feet tall, and it’s hardy down to -20º F.
- Fargesia nitida: “Blue fountain bamboo” earned its name from the dark purple, bluish culms and the thick, cascading canopy of foliage. One-inch poles can get to about 15 feet tall, and thrive in temperatures as low as -20º F.
- Fargesia dracocephala: “Dragon head bamboo” has think culms growing to about 10 feet, with a thick, weeping leaf canopy that can provide a good privacy hedge. Not recommended for hot, humid climates, but cold hardy down to -10º F.
- Fargesia rufa: A compact, thick and bushy variety, Rufa much prefers the cooler climates, and also does well in partial shade, protected from afternoon sun. This species is hardy down to -15º F. Thin culms grow to about 10 feet tall.
- Fargesia sp. ‘Jiuzhaigou’: This species includes many interesting and cold-hardy cultivars, including “red dragon” and black cherry”. As the names suggest, these are some more colorful varietals. With thin culms growing to around 10 feet, this is a more compact species of bamboo, but cold hardy down to -20º F.
- Indocalamus tessellatus: This unusual, loose clumping bamboo is also known as “Giant leaf bamboo” because it has the largest leaves of any species, up to 2 feet long and 4 inches wide. But the plant itself is not so massive. This semi-dwarf specimen can grow up to about 10 feet tall, with half-inch thick culms. It’s popular for erosion control and very cold hardy, to around -10º F.
Bamboo growing tips for the cold
As you can see, there are plenty of bamboos to choose from if you’re looking to landscape an oriental-style garden in Canada. Most of these species are hardy into the negative Fahrenheit territory. So long as you aren’t expecting to dip below minus 20º or so, you should be fine. And even if the leaves get a little fried in a severe cold snap, the roots should still endure.
If you prefer to keep your bamboo in a pot or container, you might want to think twice. The natural earth provides extra insulation for the roots, and that can be important during a cold winter. A layer of protective mulch will go a long way to keeping the bamboo comfortable in the cold. Potted bamboo roots will be more susceptible to deep freezing. On the other hand, you will have the option to bring the bamboo indoors if it’s in a pot.
As far as propagating bamboo and taking rhizome divisions in cold climates, we recommend doing this in the late winter or early spring, after the worst of the cold is over. Try to catch them before the new growing season begins. The larger the plant and root ball, the better odds of success you’ll have.
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