Gardeners have all kinds of reasons for planting bamboo. Whether you’re creating a zen garden or simply in need of a good privacy hedge, bamboo is resilient, pragmatic and aesthetically pleasing. And from bicycles to bath towels, there’s almost nothing that can’t be made from this impressive grass.
Although your average gardener might not be so industrious. But even for the amateur hobbyist, a sturdy grove of bamboo can provide a great variety of uses. From arts and crafts to light construction, bamboo poles are famously strong and easy to work with.
It’s no surprise then that we hear so many people asking which species of bamboo is the best to grow and harvest for poles. They make excellent fishing poles, very attractive curtain rods, and strong supports for awnings and canopies. You can also split thicker bamboo poles into slats that look great as accents around windows, picture frames and baseboards. We’ve even had track & field coaches buying thinner poles by the dozen for javelin practice. Really.
You get the idea. It’s cheaper than lumber, has greater tensile strength than steel, and grows like a weed. Yes, it’s useful.
So what’s the best variety of bamboo to grow for your upcoming project? Well, that depends on the nature of your project. It also depends on your climate and growing conditions.
There are about 2000 varieties of bamboo to choose from, so identifying the best choice is no simple task. But let’s take a look at some of the most favorable options.
Best species of bamboo for poles and canes
One thing that virtually all bamboo has in common, it grows in long, straight poles. Though it’s a member of the grass family, the woody culms are as strong as lumber. And generally speaking, most bamboos grow pretty quickly. So no matter what kind of bamboo you plant, you’ll probably have an abundance of poles to harvest within a few years.
Timber bamboo (3-5″ diameter poles)
Phyllostachys vivax: One of the most impressive varieties of timber bamboo, vivax grows quickly and produces formidable poles. This is a fairly cold hardy species can survive winters as cold as -15 F. But in the best conditions it can grow well over 30 feet tall with culms 4-5 inches in diameter, closer to 6 in the Deep South. Younger canes will be greener, but turn yellow over time.
Just make sure you have enough room before you plant one of these in your yard. Like all varieties of Phyllostachys, vivax is a running bamboo. And with canes that big, it’s going to need some room to spread out.
Phyllostachys bambusoides: Commonly known as Madake or Japanese timber bamboo, this massive species has an attractive combination of handsome canes and dense, dark green foliage. Canes can reach about 60-70 feet in height and 5 or 6 inches in diameter in its native habitat. Elsewhere, in more temperate climates, it might only grow half that size, or less, and not as quickly.
Culms of Japanese timber bamboo grow smooth, green and very straight. The culms walls are thick and the wood is very strong and resistant to cracking. For this reason, it is widely used in furniture making. It is also the ideal choice for making shakuhachi flutes.
Phyllostachys edulis: Perhaps the most widely grown species of bamboo in the world, P. edulis (also known as Moso bamboo) is the Chinese variety that is used for making bamboo clothing, bamboo flooring, and dozens of other applications. As the name suggests, its tender young shoots are also edible.
A very attractive species, with deep green canes, Moso bamboo looks great in parks and botanical gardens, but it may be difficult to maintain unless you have some acreage to work with. The poles can get up to about 4-5 inches in diameter, and close to 100 feet tall. If you have an ambitious construction project in mind, no job is too big for this massive bamboo. It’s a more difficult species to grow, however, especially if you are west of the Mississippi.
Sometimes you’ll get thin yellow stripes on some of the culms, but the poles will turn a nice shade of yellow once they’re harvested and dried.
Phyllostachys nigra ‘Henon’: This cultivar is much larger than the original species, Black Bamboo. Henon, also called Giant Gray, has towering culms, 4 to 5 inches thick, with a beautiful greenish-gray hue. Not quite is big Moso or Vivax, but it’s a very attractive plant that produces strong, sturdy culms.
Phyllostachys viridis ‘Robert Young’: One of the most attractive temperate bamboos, Robert Young has a most distinguished appearance. Stout, three inch culm are golden yellow, with erratic green stripes. At 30 to 40 feet tall, it can serve as a privacy screen or a specimen plant. The poles are good-sized and unmistakably beautiful.
Bambusa oldhamii: Sometimes called Oldham’s bamboo, this is one of the most widely grown varieties in the United States. Its thick foliage and robust culms give it a very elegant appearance. The poles, often growing more than 50 feet tall and up to about 4 inches in diameter, are excellent to work with.
Oldham is also a clumping variety, rather than a runner, which make it even more appealing to gardeners. It can be difficult to find a type of bamboo that will grow such substantial poles without also taking over the whole garden.
Bambusa balcooa: This is a widely grown and economically important species in India and southern Asia, also grown commercially in Africa. A great choice in warmer climates. The culms are known for their thick walls, which make the poles superior for building and construction. Canes can get 60-80 feet tall and 5-6 inches in diameter.
Guadua bamboo: The most popular variety of bamboo in Central and South America, Guadua is not only tall and thick, but it’s incredibly strong as well. So strong that it’s earned the nick name “vegetal steel”.
Unless you live in Latin America, or some other semi-tropical region like Florida, you will have a difficult time growing this species at home. But if you’re looking to purchase bamboo poles for a building project, most bamboo specialists consider this the best variety, especially in western hemisphere. (In Bali, Indonesia, they are more keen on Dendrocalamus.)
Small to medium size bamboo poles (1-2″)
Chusquea gigantea: This South American clumping bamboo is most notable for having solid culms, which make for an incredibly strong and sturdy building material. It’s also one of the most cold tolerant varieties from South America, hardy down to about 0º F.
Depending on the climate, this bamboo can grow 20-40 feet tall with culms 1-1.5 inches in diameter. It makes for a great privacy screen as well as a superior building material. The attractive poles have a rich yellow color, but dark green at the nodes, and large, lush leaves which don’t start until higher up on the plant. C. gigantea, as the name suggests, is the largest specimen of this genus, and sometimes you can even order it from a bamboo specialist nursery in North America.
Phyllostachys aureosulcata: Another running bamboo from China, P. aureosulcata has a few different cultivars, namely ‘spectabilis’ and ‘yellow groove’. The poles are interesting because spectabilis is yellow with a green stripe in the sulcus groove, and yellow groove is predominantly green with a yellow stripe.
Sometimes the culms of a spectabilis specimen will grow in a crooked, zig-zag manner. This unusual appearance can make a real impression. But the vast majority of the poles will grow straight, making them easier to work with for crafts and building.
Both cultivars are very cold hardy, down to around -15 F. Then canes ordinarily get to about 2-2.5 inches in diameter, and 30-50 feet in height.
Phyllostachys nigra: Usually referred to simply as Black Bamboo, the distinctively dark brown (not quite black) shoots make this one of the most popular species of bamboo. Any nursery that sells bamboo is likely to have some of this on hand.
As the plant matures, the dark color of the culms grows richer, making for a very attractive contrast against the bright green leaves. Moreover, when the poles are dried, they retain that dark color, sometimes taking on a speckled appearance. The richly-colored poles lend themselves to any number of decorative uses, from fencing to furniture.
Native to the Hunan Province of southern China, gardeners now cultivate black bamboo all over the world. Although it thrives best in its own subtropical habitat, it can grow very well in USDA zones 7-10. If planted in rich, loamy soil, black bamboo can get 20 to 30 feet tall with mature culms of 2 inches in diameter.
Pseudosasa japonica (arrow bamboo): This beautiful species earned its name from the long, strong, straight poles, which Samurai warriors once used to make arrows. Although technically considered a runner, it has a far more restrained growth habit than most bamboos of that class. The graceful poles and broad green leaves make this a popular variety of bamboo, and relatively easy to find.
Arrow bamboo can grow 15-20 feet tall, with stick canes not more 1-1.5 inches thick. It’s a fairly cold tolerant species that can get down to around 0º F.
How to cure bamboo poles
After harvesting your bamboo poles, but before your start building, it’s best to best to cure them somehow to prevent cracking or uneven drying and warping. The simplest thing to do is lay it out somewhere dry, not too hot or too cold, with adequate air circulation. An open air rack in the shade is ideal. It’s also a good idea to rotate the poles regularly.
It can take several weeks or even a few months for timber bamboo poles to dry out thoroughly. You can watch the color change, usually from green to yellow, as it dries.
In addition to drying the poles, they also need some sort of treatment to protect them from pests and the elements. The most popular ways to do this are chemically with borax, or more naturally with heat.
For more tips and complete details on the best methods for treating bamboo poles, check out this in-depth article: Several ways to treat your bamboo for building.
If you found this interesting and informative, be sure to have a look at out some of our other stimulating articles.
- Growing Bamboo: The complete how-to guide
- Best bamboo varieties for hedges and privacy screens
- The best bamboo varieties for construction