Bamboo is more than just an amazing plant. It’s more like an entire family, made up of nearly 2,000 plants. But technically, according to the botanical taxonomy, bamboo is actually a sub-family within the grass family, Poaceae.
The subfamily Bambusoideae includes 3 tribes, roughly 100 genera, and approximately 1,400 species of bamboo. Botanists don’t always agree on the classifications, so the numbers can vary. Furthermore, many species have multiple cultivars, or subspecies, so the total number of bamboo varieties is probably closer to 2,000.
In the following directory, we’ll break down the multitude of bamboos, genus by genus, to see how they all fit in the great web of life. Three separate tables, one for each bamboo tribe, will cover the most important genera of bamboo, according to the classifications that most botanists agree on.
NOTE: This article first appeared in November 2020, most recently updated in December 2022.
Botanical taxonomy of bamboo
Before we launch into the genera (plural of genus) and species of bamboo, it’s useful to see where bamboo fits into the overall classification system.
- Kingdom: Plant
- Phylum: Angiosperms (flowering plants, as opposed to Gymnosperms, such as conifer trees)
- Class: Monocots (their seeds contain one embryonic leaf, as opposed to Dicotyledons with two)
- Order: Poales (includes grasses, sedges and bromeliads)
- Family: Poaceae, aka Graminieae (grasses)
- Subfamily: Bambusoideae (the bamboo family)
- Tribes: Arundinarieae (temperate woody bamboo), Bambuseae (tropical woody bamboo), and Olyreae (herbaceous bamboo)
- Sub-tribes: some botanists use this division to divide the bamboo tribes into smaller units.
- Genus and Species: these are the two divisions that give us the binomial nomenclature, or scientific names of the plants, such as Phyllostachys nigra or Bambusa oldhamii.
Tribe Arundinarieae: Genera of temperate woody bamboo
Primarily native to China and the Far East, but also in Africa and North America, temperate bamboos can generally tolerate colder temperates. They come in all sizes, from towering giants to dwarfish ground covers. The majority of Arundinarieae bamboos have running rhizome systems (as opposed to clumping), enabling them to spread and proliferate quickly.
However, a handful of temperate bamboos have clumping rhizomes, making them difficult to classify. Not everyone accepts the genus Borinda, for example, which can belong to either tribe. Also, Yushania has pachymorph (clumping) rhizomes, but with longer necks and a spreading habit, so botanists aren’t quite sure where to place it. Such bamboos grow in what we call “open clumps”.
|Genus||Native habitat zones||Running or Clumping||Notes and characteristics|
|Acidosasa||China, Vietnam||running||known for edible shoots, sweet and sour|
|Arundinaria||North America||running||3 American species, other species are questionable|
|Bashania||China, Vietnam||running||cold hardy, mountain varieties|
|Borinda||Himalayas, S China||clumping||close relation to Fargesia (questionable)|
|Chimonobambusa||China, Japan, Himalayas, Vietnam||running||unusual culms, square and knobby|
|Drepanostachyum||Himalayas, China, India||clumping||close relation to Himalayacalamus|
|Fargesia||China, Vietnam||clumping||extremely cold hardy|
|Himalayacalamus||Himalayas||clumping||medium sized ornamentals|
|Indocalamus||China, Vietnam, Japan||running||smaller plants, larger leaves|
|Phyllostachys||China, Vietnam||running||hardy, vigorous, in all sizes|
|Pleioblastus||China, Japan||running||smaller plants, often striped|
|Pseudosasa||China, Japan, Vietnam||running||small to medium sized|
|Sasa||Japan||running||small plants, broad leaves|
|Semiarundinaria||China, Japan||running||tall and widespread|
|Shibataea||China||running||small and ornamental|
|Sinobambusa||China, Vietnam||running||medium sized plants|
|Thamnocalamus||Himalayas, Madagascar, S Africa||clumping||close relative to Fargesia|
|Yushania||Himalayas, Africa, China||open clumps||mountainous, formerly in Bambuseae tribe|
This genus is notable for containing the only three species of bamboo native to the continental United States. Formerly, the genus had included several other species, but most authors now recognize only three American bamboos as belonging to Arundinaria.
One of the more exceptional groups of bamboo, Fargesia are dense clumpers but some of the most cold-hardy of any species. In a temperate climate they are something of a gardener’s delight. Can can withstand deep freezes without growing invasive. And many species also have colorful culms of powdery blue or burgundy-pink.
These medium-sized and slower running bamboos are somewhat unusual, but I. latifolius is an attractive ornamental with slender culms and a compact footprint. I. tessellatus is remarkable for its giant leaves and low stature, making for an interesting hedge.
Probably the most widespread genus of bamboo, definitely in cooler climates, Phyllostachys includes an enormous variety of incredibly resilient bamboo species. From the giant Moso of China, used for all manner of commercial products like clothing and flooring, to the ordinary golden bamboo (P. aurea) that can be found in pots and front yards around the world. The smallest Phyllostachys are suitable for bonsai, while varieties like Henon are cultivated across the American south for poles and building material.
A large genus of small bamboo, these dwarf varieties make great accents and groundcovers. But don’t let the low height and delicate culms fool you, they have some very vigorous roots that love to stretch across the garden and get into places they don’t belong.
This genus of medium-sized running bamboo is attractive and relatively easy to contain. Arrow Bamboo (P. japonica) is especially popular is grows quite well in a pot. Tonkin Bamboo is another revered species, prized for its excellent culms, used widely for fishing poles and ski poles.
Indigenous to Japan, these dwarf bamboo specimens are recognizable for their low height and their wide leaves. They are ideal as hedges and groundcovers, providing an excellent compliment to decorative trees like Japanese Maple and short-needle pines. And Sasa bamboo will not be discouraged by cold weather.
Another interesting genus of temperate bamboo is Semiarundinaria, which includes at least two species of popular ornamentals. S. fastuosa, or Temple Bamboo, has an especially regal appearance, tall, upright and colorful. S. densiflora is also a popular bamboo with an unusual leaf arrangement.
Tribe Bambuseae: Genera of tropical woody bamboo
Found throughout the tropic and subtropic climate zones of the earth, tropical bamboos can be among the most impressive varieties. For the most part, they grow with a clumping habit, and are far less prone to becoming invasive. We find native populations in Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas, as well as such far-flung corners as Madagascar and New Guinea.
|Genus||Native habitat zones||Running or Clumping||Notes and characteristics|
|Arthrostylidium||Central America||clumping||climbing growth habit|
|Bambusa||China, Taiwan, India, SE Asia, N Australia, New Guinea||clumping||huge variety, 150 species|
|Borinda||Himalayas, S China||clumping||disputed classification|
|Cathariostachys||Madagascar||clumping||2 species, threatened by deforestation|
|Cephalostachyum||Asia, Madagascar||clumping||small, medium sized plants|
|Chusquea||Central and South America||clumping||open clumps, solid culms|
|Dendrocalamus||India, SE Asia||clumping||giant timber varieties|
|Dinochloa||SE Asia, Philippines||clumping||climbing, zigzag culms|
|Gigantochloa||China, India, New Guinea||clumping||giant timber types|
|Guadua||Central and South America||clumping||giant timber types|
|Melocanna||India, SE Asia||clumping||mass flowering event|
|Olmeca||Mexico||clumping||open clumps, fleshy fruits|
|Neomicrocalamus||southern China, northern India||clumping||climbing habit|
|Otatea||Mexico, Central America||clumping||small, ornamentals|
|Oxytenanthera||sub-Saharan Africa||clumping||drought tolerant|
|Schizostachyum||Asia, New Guinea, Madagascar||clumping||medium to large|
|Thyrsostachys||China, SE Asia||clumping||large timber types|
More subtropical than truly tropical, this is one of the most widespread genera of bamboo, including more than 100 species of all different shapes, sizes and colors. Most tropical clumpers need a very warm climate where freezing is rare or unheard of. But many varieties of Bambusa can tolerate temperatures into the low 20s or even the teens (Fahrenheit). The more tropical species are popular for commercial cultivation, like B. balcooa and B . blumeana. More adaptable species like B. textilis and B. oldhamii are extremely popular as ornamentals.
Not the most famous genus among bamboo newbies, this neotropical category, native to Central and South America, actually has well over 100 species. Many are excellent choices as ornamentals, tolerating freezing temparates as well as extreme heat. Most interestingly, the bamboos have solid culms instead of hollow, making them very useful for crafts and furniture making.
A truly tropical group of bamboos, these are some of the largest and most gigantic in the whole family of grasses, even more impressive than the genus Gigantochloa. Many species can exceed 100 feet in height and some (D. sinicus) will approach 150 feet. D. asper is quickly becoming the most widely cultivated bamboo for commercial use, with its incredibly strong and straight poles. But if there’s any chance of frost, these Southeast Asian giants won’t be happy.
A rather exotic genus, with only two recognized species, these tropical delights thrive in Thailand and Southeast Asia. Monastery Bamboo is a wonderful ornamental, where the climate is warm enough, but in its native habitat it is valued both for its edible shoots and its construction-quality poles.
In South America, they consider Guadua angustifolia to be the greatest and most important bamboo species in the world. It’s certainly among the top five, if you ask me. In Colombia and Ecuador, they can build anything with this tropical timber grass. But efforts to grow the species elsewhere have not been so successful. It really prefers the high altitudes and the equatorial orientation.
Tribe Olyreae: Tropical, herbaceous bamboo
This small tribe is more closely related to the tropical Bambuseae. They are something of a novelty and grow almost exclusively in the tropics of the New World, especially in the Amazon basin. Typically, they grow in the shady undergrowth of the jungles and rainforests. Unlike their woody cousins, these bamboos have soft, tender culms, and look more like small shrubs. They do not exhibit the same kinds of roots systems as their more developed relatives.
Botanists recognize 3 sub-tribes of herbaceous bamboo, and a total of 21 genera. Several of these genera are monotypic, meaning they only contain one species. These compact, exotic varieties have not been naturalized beyond their native habitats and are not grown by nurseries.
|Agnesia||Brazil, Colombia, Peru||Olyrinae||monotypic (only one species)|
|Arberella||Central and South America||Olyrinae||includes 7 species|
|Buergersiochloinae||South America, Africa, Madagascar||Buergersiochloinae||monotypic|
|Cryptochloa||throughout Latin America||Olyrinae||8 species|
|Froesiochloa||Brazil, the Guianas||Olyrinae||monotypic|
|Lithachne||Mexico to Paraguay, and Cuba||Olyrinae||4 species|
|Olyra||Neotropics and Africa||Olyrinae||24 species|
|Pariana||Latin America||Parianinae||29 species|
|Parodiolyra||South America||Olyrinae||6 species|
|Raddia||Brazil, the Guianas||Olyrinae||9 species|
|Raddiella||Panama, South America||Olyrinae||8 species|
|Rehia||Brazil, the Guianas||Olyrinae||monotypic|
If you’ve found this genus-by-genus directory of bamboo useful and interesting, you might also check out some of these other popular articles.