Bamboo comprises an astonishing family of flowering grasses with nearly 2,000 species and cultivars in total. Some timber bamboo varieties are enormous, up to 100 feet tall or a foot in diameter. Other dwarf and ground cover species of bamboo thrive under the lower canopy of the forest and scarcely grow the size of a pencil. And with such a vast array of bamboos to learn about it, you could literally spend a lifetime getting to know them all. So if you’re a curious gardener, or just new to bamboo, you might begin by asking about the most common species of bamboo.

One species of bamboo actually has a botanical name, Bambusa vulgaris, which translates to “common bamboo,” and it is extremely widespread in southern China and Southeast Asia. In North America, Bambusa oldhamii is probably the most popular variety of bamboo among gardening enthusiasts. Phyllostachys aurea (Golden bamboo) and Phyllostachys nigra (Black bamboo) are another pair of very prolific bamboo species, native to China but commonly found in gardens throughout the world.

In the following article, we’ll take a closer look at these few types of bamboo. We’ll examine their defining characteristics so you can more easily recognize them. And equally important, you can make an educated decision as to whether or not you’d like to have any of these common bamboo species growing in your own garden.

Bambusa vulgaris, aka Common Bamboo

Bambusa is a very diverse genus of bamboo, with about 150 species. As the name suggests, Bambusa is a common and important genus. They are all native to China and Southeast Asia, and most species get quite large with lots of lateral branching. In the classification of bamboo, one of the most important features is whether they have a running or a clumping root system. All members of the Bambusa tribe are clumpers.

Based on its botanical name (or binomial nomenclature), we know that B. vulgaris must be one of the most common types of bamboo. You can find it growing all over Southeast Asia and China and it is fairly easy to recognize. It is one of the more towering species of bamboo, often reaching more than 50 or 60 feet in height, with dark green culms 3 to 5 inches in diameter. It has an open clumping habit, so that it can spread relatively quickly, although it’s not a runner.

In its native regions, this species of bamboo is very important for its giant culms which are widely used for building and construction, including houses, scaffolding and fencing. Higher levels of lignin and cellulose also make this a desirable bamboo for paper pulp. The shoots can be eaten, but they are not considered to be very tasty, compared to a species like oldhamii (see below).

B. vulgaris grows naturally in tropical climates, preferring warm, moist conditions. So it thrives in places like Vietnam and Indonesia, but it’s not an ideal species in North America. It’s cold hardy down to freezing, but it won’t tolerate temperatures much below 30º F. You’ll have the best success with this species in places like Florida or Southern California, but you can do even better with a variety like Oldham’s.

Bambusa oldhammi

Oldham’s, as it’s often known, is quite possibly the most popular species of bamboo in North America. Like all varieties of Bambusa, it’s a clumping type of bamboo native to tropical and subtropical regions. But compared to B. vulgaris, it stays rather more contained in its clump, and is somewhat more cold hardy.

Another common name for this species is simply “Giant timber.” Indeed, it’s one of the largest types of bamboo that you can grow easily in a North American garden. In warmer climates it can get 50 to 60 feet tall, and further north it will grow to 20 or 30 feet. Oldham’s reaches maturity in about 5 or 6 years, and that’s when it will start producing those full-sized culms; in the first couple years the culms may only be half as tall. It’s cold hardy down to about 20º F, so you can grow it in a wider range of climate zones than other tropical varieties.

The combination of its restricted, clumping growth habit and its majestic stature, makes oldhamii a very popular choice among gardeners. It can provide an attractive centerpiece in a spacious garden, and a row of plants can make a very effective privacy screen. The impressive canes of this bamboo are also quite useful for any number of building projects, from fishing poles and garden stakes to furniture and tipi structures.

Phyllostachys aurea, Golden bamboo

Along with Bambusa, Phyllostachys is another of the most prevalent genera of bamboo. But the several dozen varieties of this genus are all runners, and some of them can become quite invasive, so watch out. One thing about running bamboo is that it’s very easy to propagate because it spreads so quickly. In fact, its aggressive growth often requires you to remove significant portions of the root mass. And those portions can easily provide new plants. All this allows nurseries to propagate the plants steadily, and sell them at a pretty low price.

Phyllostachys plants therefore have a natural tendency to make themselves very common and widespread. I’d like to point out, however, that the fear of bamboo taking over the world is unfounded. Yes, running bamboo can take over your yard, and maybe even your neighbor’s yard (if you’re not careful). But running bamboo has been growing for thousands of years, and if it were going to overrun the planet, it would have surely done so by now.

One of the most common Phyllostachys species of all is Golden bamboo, P. aurea, which you can find almost anywhere. People like to grow it as a privacy hedge or in big barrels in front of Asian restaurants, because it grows quickly, with dense, delicate foliage, and modest size.

When someone plants a bamboo screen along their fence line, they usually want it to fill in quickly, and Golden bamboo does the job nicely. It can grow to a maximum height of about 30 feet with culms 2 inches thick, but that’s under ideal conditions in its native habitat. In California and colder climates it generally gets about half that tall, but your results may vary.

Phyllostachys are also popular and common because of their cold hardiness. P. aurea is hardy down to about 0º F, making it viable in USDA zones 6-10. Not only that, but it’s also fairly drought tolerant. In short, Golden bamboo is virtually indestructible. No wonder you see it growing everywhere. But if indestructibility intimidates you, then you may wish to steer clear of this one.

You can recognize and identify Phyllostachys pretty easily by their distinctive sulcus groove. This is the narrow indentation that runs the length of each culm internode, on alternative sides of the bamboo stem. (See photo below.) If you can see or feel this groove, then you know you have a running bamboo on your hands, and a member of the genus Phyllostachys.

Phyllostachys nigra, Black bamboo

A close relative to Golden bamboo, Black bamboo shares many characteristics. It’s comparably cold hardy and pretty similar in size. But the uncommonly dark brown or nearly black culms of this species make it especially popular for growers. Leaves are a nice deep shade of green, and so are the fresh and young shoots. But within a year or two, you’ll start to see them turning that dark, rich color which has earned this species its name.

The contrast of the green leaves and the black culms makes this variety very attractive and therefore quite popular. The poles, once harvested and dried, are excellent for light building, arts and crafts. Use them for decoration alongside yellow bamboo for an especially pleasing effect.

Phyllostachys-nigra-running-bamboo
Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) with indicative sulcus groove.

If you’re worried about the aggressive growth habit of this popular variety, try planting it in the shade. This will not affect the color of the culms, but it will slow the growth way down so that it behaves almost like a clumping bamboo.

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FEATURE PHOTO: Bambusa oldhamii growing on California’s Central Coast

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