Bamboo is a tenacious, woody grass that flourishes on six continents and is native to five of them. Comprised of some 1,400 distinct species, the bamboo subfamily of grasses is well represented around the world. But some varieties are more suitable for certain regions and climates than others. We usually divide bamboo into two categories, tropical and subtropical. But like most distinctions in nature, there’s also some gray area, and we can call these subtropical.
The main difference between tropical and subtropical bamboo is that subtropical species can tolerate some amount of frost and are hardy down to Fahrenheit temperatures in the 20s. Truly tropical bamboo requires a warm climate where freezing temperatures are extremely rare or unheard of. Both classes have a clumping growth habit. Temperate bamboo typically has running roots and is cold-hardy down to at least 10 or 15º F, or even sub-zero F.
Varieties of Bamboo
The bamboo family is incredibly diverse. Some species grow more than 100 feet tall, and others get no larger than a pencil. Some grow on the African savannah, some on the slopes of the Himalayas, and others in the jungles of South America. Some bamboo is green, and some bamboo is yellow. But there’s also an astonishing range of black, blue and chocolate brown bamboo species.
Trying to choose the right bamboo for your garden can be a challenging decision. But one of the most important factors is definitely going to be the climate. The greatest diversity of bamboo grows around the equator, in the tropics. But other species are native to regions as far north as Russia’s Kuril Islands or as far south as central Chile.
Take a look at our article on Rare and Unusual Bamboo Species.
Running bamboo vs Clumping Bamboo
For most purposes, botanists divide the 1,400+ varieties of bamboo into two classes or tribes: tropical bamboo and temperate bamboo. You might be more familiar with the distinction between running bamboo and clumping bamboo. In most cases, temperate bamboo has running rhizomes, while tropical bamboo is clumping, and so is subtropical bamboo.
So, generally speaking, clumping bamboo will prefer warmer, more tropical climates. Most species will not do well if there’s frost. Running bamboo, on the other hand, tends to be very cold hardy. Most species of running or temperate bamboo can withstand freezing winters and temperatures close to 0º F.
In fact, there are a few outliers, such as the genus Fargesia, which consists of clumping bamboo that is also extremely cold hardy, down to temperatures as low as -10º or -20º F. The genus Chusquea, from South America, is also clumping and considered neotropical, but most of these species can withstand temperatures well below freezing.
The clumping classification is also somewhat vague, because some bamboo species have very tight clumps, and others we call open clumpers. Guadua angustifolia, for example, very common in Colombia and Ecuador, has clumping rhizomes that can travel a few meters before shooting up from the soil.
Botanists do not draw a sharp line between tropical and subtropical bamboo. It’s an informal and unofficial distinction. But the bamboo varieties we call subtropical, mainly in the genus Bambusa, will tolerate a bit more frost than your average tropical specimen.
The most common genus of temperate bamboo is Phyllostachys. Primarily native to China, Taiwan and Japan, these varieties are used to surviving through ice and snow in the winter. The resilience of these species has also made them very popular in Europe and North America, regions with little or no indigenous bamboo of their own. Their vigorous, running rhizomes also make them easy to divide and propagate.
Other common genera of temperate, running bamboo include Chimonobambusa, Plieoblastus, Pseudosasa, Sasa, Sasaella, and Semiarundinaria, to name a few.
See our article on Cold-Hardy Bamboo Species.
The widest distribution of bamboo is around the equator, in areas like Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Central American highlands, and the Amazon. In these tropical climes, you can find bamboo growing more than 10 inches in diameter and easily 100 feet tall.
These tropical bamboo varieties tend to have the thickest culms, making them superior for building and construction. They are less susceptible to cracking than most temperate bamboos.
In Asia, you can find an impressive selection of Bambusa, Dendrocalamus, Gigantochloa, Schizostachyum, and a host of other more exotic genera. In Latin America, Guadua is the preeminent genus of tropical bamboo.
If you live in the United States, however, you’ll have a hard time maintaining a tropical bamboo in your garden. Hawaii is an exception, of course. And south of the Florida panhandle, they grow a fair amount of these tropicals. But even there, the tropical bamboo doesn’t really thrive until you get close to the Keys.
The idea of growing tropical bamboo has great appeal. But in the vast majority of America and Europe, it’s not really a feasible option. In Florida, farmers have been planting Dendrocalamus asper as a commercial crop. In Florida’s subtropical climate, this Southeast Asian giant grows fairly well, but the occasional frosts make it a less-than-ideal species for commercial purposes. It certainly doesn’t grow as well here as it does in Indonesia.
Although it’s an unofficial classification, there are a handful of bamboos we can think of as subtropical. These are clumping bamboo species, typically native to regions near or just outside the tropics. You still can’t grow them in America’s heartland, but there are a few varieties of Bambusa that are hardy down to around 20º F. In Southern California, most of Florida and the Deep South, these subtropical varieties should do pretty well. But they might not reach the same size they do in their native lands.
Bambusa malingensis ‘Seabreeze’
This popular species from Southern China is great in a variety of conditions. As the name suggests, it’s very tolerant of winds and salty air by the seaside. Its tight clumping habit and lateral branches also make for a dense and fast-growing privacy hedge, often growing up 30 feet tall or more. Seabreeze also happens to be one of the more drought-tolerant bamboo species. But like most varieties of Bambusa, it’s not especially cold-hardy. Temperatures below 20º F will usually result in frost damage.
This species has a number of cultivars, including ‘Golden Goddess’, a very popular ornamental for its manageable size and greater hardiness. They only grow about 10 feet tall, with half-inch culms, cold hardy to 15-20º F. Not to be confused with Phyllostachys aurea, also called Golden Bamboo. Another subspecies, ‘Alphonse Karr’, is among the most highly sought after of all ornamental bamboos. Distinctive green stripes on bright yellow culms give this variety a stunning appearance (see image below). Healthy plants can get 20-30 feet tall, with 1.5-2 inch canes. Also tolerates temperates as low as 15-20º F.
Sometimes called Giant Timber Bamboo, this is one of the most popular bamboo varieties in all of North America, especially in milder climates. Oldham’s is one of the more versatile timber bamboos of this genus, hardy to about 20º F. Mature groves can get 50-60 feet tall, with 4-inch thick culms. The majestic, upright culms have a rich yellow color. These plants make for beautiful specimens or centerpieces, but are also very effective as privacy screens.
The most popular cultivar of this species, ‘Gracilis’, also goes by the well-deserved name of Graceful Bamboo. Tall, slender canes, in tight clumps, can get 30 feet tall, arching towards the top for a graceful aspect. Thin culm walls make the poles more flexible but less useful for building. It is most widely grown as an ornamental. Cold hardy to 15-20º F.
Ghost Bamboo, as it’s popularly known, is as alluring and elusive as its name. This exotic variety is something of a dwarf among the genus Dendrocalamus, only growing 20 or 30 feet tall. But the coloration of its culms, grayish-green with striking variegations, makes it an especially desirable specimen among collectors. And with a name like Ghost Bamboo, who can resist?
Though smaller than its giant relatives, this species is extremely fast-growing and far more tolerant of non-tropical conditions. It grows especially well throughout Coastal California, if you can find any. This ornamental species is also popular in northern Australia.
Northern Mexico is warm and sunny, but it lacks the humidity and precipitation of a truly tropical climate, and that results in somewhat colder overnight temperatures. Mexican Weeping Bamboo is native to this region and serves as a popular ornamental in warmer places like California and the Deep South. But it can survive mild freezes to about 20º F without frost damage. This variety grows 10-20 feet tall with culms up to 1.5 inches thick. It’s fairly drought tolerant but looks better with weekly watering.
The New World or neotropical bamboo genus enjoys the rare distinction of having the widest distribution both in latitude and altitude. These highly adaptable bamboos grow from sea level well up into the Andes, from Central Mexico all the way down to southern Chile. As such, there are quite a few species that can survive temperatures ranging from 0º to 100º F.
See our detailed article on the Genus Chusquea.
If you love learning about bamboo, then you’ve come to the right place. Check out some of these related articles to discover more interesting facts about bamboo and which ones to add to your garden.