With nearly 2000 varieties of bamboo to choose from, and six continents on which it grows, it’s hard to say which is the most popular bamboo species of all. But most botanists and bamboo experts agree that Bambusa oldhamii is the most widely grown bamboo variety it North America. First identified in Taiwan in the mid 19th century, Oldham’s has since proliferated across the globe like few other plants.
What’s so great about Bambusa oldhamii?
There are plenty of criteria that go into selecting a species of bamboo for a private garden or a landscaping project. But there are at least three or four characteristics that have made Bambusa oldhamii the most popular bamboo variety in America.
Given the choice between running bamboo and clumping bamboo, most gardeners prefer to plant clumpers. Running bamboo has earned a pretty bad reputation for the way it spreads and takes over lawns and gardens, often choking out other ornamental plants. Once the tenacious rhizome roots of a running bamboo establish themselves, they can be almost impossible to remove. In some cases, running bamboos make more sense, when filling out a large area quickly, for example, but many suburban gardeners find the aggressive growth habit intimidating. (And in fact, there are a number of ways to contain and tame this formidable beast.)
Clumping bamboos, on the other hand, behave differently, with another type of rhizomes that spread more slowly and eventually stop spreading when the plant reaches a certain size. This allows the ordinary gardener to keep a clumping bamboo like Oldham’s in a well-defined area, without disrupting the rest of the landscape or creeping into the neighbor’s well manicured flower bed next door.
At the same time, it’s somewhat surprising that a clumping bamboo grows more widely than any runners. After all, the running bamboos grow so quickly and are very easy to propagate. Consequently, they are considerably less expensive to purchase from nurseries and garden centers. But the fact that humans have helped it to surpass all the running species of bamboo is a real testament to the desirability of oldhamii.
If you want some impressive greenery in your garden, few plants can match the grandeur of a giant timber bamboo. In good conditions, Oldham’s can easily grow more than 50 feet tall with culms up to 4 inches in diameter. The poles of this species are tall, straight and elegant. Furthermore, the wood is thick and makes a beautiful building material.
It’s not easy to find a bamboo variety that gets so tall and spectacular without also spreading out and taking over the landscape. In other words, the combination of clumping roots and timber stature make Bambusa oldhammi an especially appealing and popular variety of bamboo. It’s particularly interesting for those who want to dazzle their neighbors without overrunning their gardens.
Although native to the subtropical climes of Taiwan, Bambusa oldhamii also does quite well in the temperate climate zones of Europe and North America. It’s not the most cold hardy of all bamboos, but Oldham’s will survive down to 15 or 20 degrees Fahrenheit, which is pretty hardy for a clumping bamboo.
The most cold hardy bamboos tend to be running species, like members of the genus Phyllostachys. Phyllostachys are native to the cooler and more mountainous parts of China and can often survive sub-zero winters. This makes them especially popular in places like Germany or Canada, which we don’t generally associate with bamboo. Oldham’s won’t do well in those climates, but it does enjoy a pretty wide range of habitats.
Rounding out the list of desirable characteristics, Oldham’s is not only tall, regal, hardy and well-contained, but it’s also bursting with attractive greenery. The leaves of this species tend to be long and wide, growing densely between the majestic culms of the towering bamboo. From the base of the plant all the way to its great heights, oldhamii is packed with lush foliage. In addition to looking very pretty in the garden, it can also provide some comforting privacy as well as some excellent nesting area for avian wildlife.
Moso bamboo, the runner up
Another of the world’s most popular bamboo varieties is Phyllostachys edulis, or Moso bamboo, a running timber bamboo from southern China. Its domineering stature and rapid growth habit make this a fun variety, especially for those with plenty of space to spread out, and who aren’t intimidated by an aggressive running bamboo. Moreover, Moso bamboo is the most widely grown bamboo for commercial purposes. Moso is the raw material for all bamboo clothing, bamboo flooring, and a wide range of crafts and construction products.
Bambusa oldhamii for the win!
In some ways, it’s pretty surprising that an obscure variety of bamboo discovered in Taiwan in the 1860s by the unfortunate British botanist and collector Richard Oldham should become the most widely grown species of bamboo in North America. (On his adventures through Asia and Japan, Oldham contracted smallpox, rheumatism and neuralgia, and ultimately died of dysentery at the age of 27.)
In other ways, it’s clear that Bambusa oldhamii has everything it takes to earn a big thumbs up from the legions of green-thumbed gardening enthusiasts around the globe. Tall, dark and handsome, while at the same time easy to maintain and cultivate, Oldham’s is something like a bamboo lover’s dream come true.
Of course, there are over a thousand other bamboo species worth considering, and countless reasons why you might choose to plant bamboo. So Bambusa oldhamii isn’t going to be the one-size-fits-all solution to every gardening scenario.
Take a look at some of our other articles to help select the best bamboo for your various purposes. And please consider subscribing to our blog for more great articles about the uses and cultivation of this incredible plant.
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- Bonsai with bamboo
- Exotic bamboo varieties
- Cold hardy bamboo
- Bamboo privacy hedges
- The best bamboo for poles
PHOTO CREDIT: Bambusa oldhamii thriving in the mild climate and sandy soil of Oceano, California, near San Luis Obispo.