Photo by Melody

Introduction to Bamboo

By Geoff Stein (palmbobAugust 8, 2008

Bamboo is one of the most ornamental as well as easy to grow garden and potted plants, but is often overlooked or avoided because of fears it will take over the yard (and the neighbor's yard). This article serves only as an introduction to this wonderful class of plants.

Gardening picture 

This is not a detailed account of bamboo cultivation but only an introduction to those who know nothing about bamboo and want to grow it.  Joining the local bamboo society was my first real introduction into the plant world and this was what got me all excited about plants in the first place.  Unfortunately one really needs lots of space if one is really going to get into growing bamboo, so I have since moved on to smaller and smaller plant groups over the years.  But I really miss my old garden in which I have about 25 species of bamboo growing and most were pretty easy and great looking plants.  The following are some bamboo growing suggestions along with the basic bamboo categories and some examples of each.

 Image Bamboo sale from my early bamboo collecting days.

Image Bambusa multiplex (aka Hedge Bamboo) grown as a hedge/screen effectively

Some species commonly called bamboo, but which are not even closely related:

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Chamaedorea palm (called Bamboo palm); Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana- photo by Sandpiper); and Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica DebinSC photo)

Bamboo is basically a form of grass, though with a woody stem (culm).  Some are small and almost grass-like, while others have huge culms (over 100') and up to 8" in diameter.  It is a fast growing plant with some species growing over 1' a day in ideal conditions.  Most are slower than that, and some are painfully slow.  But it is an ornamental group of plants and many are excellent for landscaping as well as for growing in pots.  However, bamboo is more importantly and economically vital species in many parts of the world, being used for construction, weaving, clothing and for food (for both us and animals).  My own experiences with bamboo have been strictly as an ornamental.

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Culm of Bambusa beecheyana, one of the larger species; Fargesia utilis, a relatively dinky species of bamboo; Sasa palmata, another small bamboo, but with huge leaves (photo by BambooHQ)

Bamboos differ in more than just size of culms.  Though most have straight-ish culms, some have incredibly pole-like straight culms that look almost too straight and smooth to be a natural plant product.  Some bamboos have amazing colors, and hundreds of cultivars are grown with amazingly colorful and artful striping and patterns on the culms.  Some species have thorny culms.  Bamboos vary also in leaf size (some huge plants have dinky leaves and some dinky plants have huge leaves), texture (some leaves are fuzzy, some are rough and almost dangerous to handle) and some are variegated. 

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Two examples of Bambusa culms, a clumping genus, showing the less the perfectly straight culms, and Phyllostachys vivax, a runner, with perfect poles

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Bumbusa vulgaris 'Wamin' showing highly ornamental internode swellings; Phyllostachys edulis Heterocycla (aka Tortoise shell Bamboo- photo by dbinnix); and Dendrocalamus gigantea showing the massive swooping 8" diameter culms

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Three bambusa showing some color ranges: Bambusa chungii (aka Tropical blue Bamboo), Bamusa multiplex Alphonse Karr, and Bambusa lako

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Giganotochloa atroviolacea (Tropical Black Bamboo), Himalayacalamus hookerianus (Himalayan Blue Bamboo) and Phyllostachys nigra Bory (Snakeskin Bamboo)

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Different variegated leaves in bamboo: Hibanobambusa tranquilans Shiroshima (photo by ocimum_nate); Phyllostachys I have in my yard; and Sinobambusa tootsik albostriata (photo by BambooHQ)

Bamboos, like any grassy plant, flower, but flowering may not be a typical occurrence relative to most other plant species one may encounter in cultivation.  In general, flowering is not something one wants their bamboo to do.  Many species of bamboo flower once every 50-100 years, and then all the plants from the same parentage (which may mean nearly all specimens of a particular species growing anywhere in that country, or even all over the world) flower simultaneously.  In many species, this is a terminal event (meaning the plants are monocarpic or die after they flower), though this is not true in all species.  Flowers are not all that impressive and I dread the day my bamboos flower- usually means I have to replace the plant in the near future.  And if that plant was part of massive flowering event, finding a replacement of the same species may require years before enough are regrown from seed to find their way to market again.

Growing bamboo is not difficult, though some species may not grow in your climate if it gets cold where you live.  Most clumping bamboo struggle with temps below freezing.  But lots of water and fertilizer and bamboo grows like grass (which of course it is).  It is difficult to overwater bamboo- generally the more water it gets the faster it grows (grown in heavy clay, some bamboo can rot, however).  Underwatering bamboo is sometimes easy, but many bamboos are much more drought tolerant that most think.  And if given too little water, most will start to show some leaf curl before things get seriously out of order.  Watering these plants will usually save them and the leaves will flatten again soon after. 

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Phyllostachys sp. drying up and showing leaf curl, and then a few hours later after being watered.

But bamboo cultivation can be a lot of work.  There are not too many dirtier plants than bamboo as they are constantly loosing leaves all year round (not a great plant to put right near a pool, perhaps).  And their culms need to be removed periodically as they get old and die (and some bamboo are quite tough- simple clippers may not be enough to cut down a culm).

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Phyllostachys species covered with snow, and OK (photo chicochi3); Otatea mexicana aztecorum is an exceptionally drought tolerant species, here growing in a cactus garden in southern California

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Showing the typical mass of leaf litter that accumulates at the base of a plant (and if the wind blows, everywhere in the yard); Dendrocalamus asper showing a lot of dead culms that will need to be removed soon- these will NOT fit in one's weekly trash pickup cans

There are two basic categories of bamboo though some species don't fit perfectly into these groups: runners and clumpers.  These designations refer to the root types with runners having rhizomes (modified roots) the spread relatively far from the original culms, and clumpers growing new culms basically in small clumps and spread outward in all directions bit by bit over the years.  In general, runners are more cold hardy while clumpers are more tropical in their cold tolerances.

The runners- it is the large or vigorous running bamboos that have given bamboos their ‘infamous' reputation as being aggressively invasive.  And for the most part, runners are very invasive plants.  This can be both useful and dangerous in the landscape.  If one wants to fill in certain areas with bamboo in a hurry, runners will probably do the job much faster than would most clumpers.  But then one needs to put in some sort of barrier system (rhizome barriers) or that species may do much more than ‘fill in' an area, and may continue to grow on and on should the soil type allow it and water be available.  I have grown a number of running bamboos, and in general, I find these to be the more ornamental of the bamboos (at least the large ones).  This is because running bamboos tend to grow in a less compact, and therefore, less ‘messy' clump.  Also the culms themselves tend to be more upright and perfectly straight, often with less branching near the ground, again making them look neater and more elegant.  There are small running species and huge ones (same goes for clumping species).  As mentioned already, most running bamboos are more cold hardy than the clumping species, often tolerating freezing temperatures (many originate from high elevations in the orient). 

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Phyllostachys aureum (aka Golden Bamboo)- one of the most aggressive species of running bamboo, with a buried retaining wall near the grass edge; Phyllostachys species used as a visual screen between apartment buidlings in Los Angeles; Phyllostachys nigra Bory in botanical garden from a distance (all from one plant)

Where I live in southern California I am lucky in that both groups of bamboo grow fairly well here, as long as one provides enough water (most do even better in Florida or Hawaii where water is less of an issue).  I have grown most of my running bamboo within rhizome barriers of corregated metal, or along sidewalks near streets, or against concrete barriers.  However I have grown a few of the smaller, less aggressive species without barriers and so far have not regretted it.  My only risky move was planting black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) along my neighbor's fence... their property was a good 4' above mine with a wooden fence supported by a large foundation of concrete.  Sounded like a good barrier to me, but it was still able to overcome it and a few shoots would appear in their yard now and then.  Fortunately they were quite pleased and even hoped more would cross over... eventually they had their own ‘crop' of black bamboo.  Unfortunately they sold their house and the new neighbors were less enchanted with their adopted bamboo grove.  Fortunately it was their problem now, not ours.  Unfortunately they didn't necessarily see it that way.  Fortunately I moved away soon after and it really is no longer my problem.  But I don't think I will do that again.

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Phyllostachys nigra (aka Black Bamboo), a common species, growing in its typical moderately sparse pattern, quickly filling in areas

Some things I did learn about running bamboos... if one does not water at all except at the center of the grove, they will struggle to run uncontrolled.  I stupidly planted a small pot of golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea), a really aggressive and not terribly attractive species as well, early on in my bamboo phase.  Fortunately I discovered the lack of watering technique and that colony has not spread out too far in any direction.  

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two more nice running species, Sinobambusa tootsik (aka Chinese Temple Babmoo) and Phyllostachys vivax, a tall, elegant species

I have grown several Phyllostachys species in large pots, after having some success with some clumping species in pots.  These running plants were far less thrilled with the pot environment and the pot ended up filling with tortuous, snake-like rhizomes and relatively few culms to show for it.  I actually felt sorry for the frustrated plants and eventually sunk them into the ground (within my makeshift barriers). 

 Image Pleioblastus pygmaeus (aka Pygmy Bamboo) filling excellently a huge pot (photo by BambooHQ)

Also running bamboos do not necessarily grow how you want them to.  In attempts to fill in certain spaces, I planted some running species, and the culms would pop up here and there randomly, but rarely made effective visual screens in any amount of time.  Eventually some visual screening effect was achieved, but it was not nearly what I was hoping for.  Since then I have just planted several or the more ornamental and rapidly growing Bambusa species (a clumper) in similar areas and achieved the screen effect much more rapidly.  Had I many yards to fill with bamboo, it would still have been far more economical to use a running bamboo species, but these areas I wanted to fill were relatively small.

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I have grown both of these Chimonobambusa species, marmorata and quadrangularis- Chimonobambusa marmorata is a super invasive species and grows everywhere in a dense mass, while C quadrangularis almost grows like a clumping species, spreading slowly (and has nice 4-sided culms, perfect for minature construction- fences etc.)

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Sasa japonica (Arrow bamboo) is a semi-invasive runner (photo by BambooHQ); this Pleioblastus viridistriatus (Pygmy Green Stripe Bamboo) is such a wimpy runner that I consider it safe... this species can even be mowed in the fall, and it will regrow in the spring

And lastly I learned that running bamboo is a much thirstier beast, in general, to clumping bamboo.  At least in my limited experience.  I have nearly killed multiple species of running bamboo by not watering well, and most grew far slower than I would have like with what little water I was able to afford them during long periods of my being distracted or forgetful.  Most of the clumping species, once established, seemed amazingly drought tolerant and I only killed a few off (though ultimately not sure exactly why they died).  Bamboos that are thirsty tend to show curled leaves giving one some warning before it's too late.

The clumpers- I have grown a lot more of these than I have runners for the obvious reason these are less risky to stick in the ground.  Most grow in fairly snug clumps and if one is diligent about knocking down the new culms that shoot up outside one's desired area of growth, one can pretty much keep things under control.  This is not the case eventually, however, with the particularly large, sturdy species (eg. large Bambusa species).  Even if one knocks down the new shoots, the massive, thick rhizomes will keep spreading outward and these can be mighty destructive creatures, tearing out weaker foundations, planter boxes, other plants etc.  Think ahead before growing these in small gardens or against one's home.  Grow smaller species of either if one is concerned about neighboring structures.  Rhizome barriers seem less effective (unless reinforced concrete) against some of these monsters, but I would still put some in if one does want to control the ultimate size of the culm (some clumps of large Babmusa or Dendrocalamus , if allowed, can get up to 50' or more in diameter... not much different than growing a running bamboo at that point).

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Bambusa oldhamii is one of the most popular clumping species (second photo shows it being grown as a screen- multiple plants, though, not just one running plant); Dendrocalamus asper is one of the larger ornamental species I have grown

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Bambusa beecheyana, showing typical shape of a mature clump (about 50' in diameter), and two shots of Bambusa vulgaris vitata (first in California, second in Hawaii)- clumping bamboo can take up a LOT of room!

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One of my favorite clumping species, the delicate Chusquea coronalis- not necessarily a full sun species

Image compare that to this giant Dendrocalamus gigantea, up to 100' tall, a full sun variety

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Another exceptional clumper (though a relatively aggressive one), Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea mexicana aztecorum), one of my favorites

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Gaudua angustifolia and Thyrostachys siamensis are two more attractive clumping species

Not all bamboo like full sun... in fact, some cannot tolerate anything but a little morning sun.  Most running bamboo seems fine in full sun (with the exception of some of the smaller species), but a lot of clumpers have to be grown in the shade of larger trees, or in pots on covered patios etc.  Some of the most beautiful species with the incredibly turquoise, purple or indescribable colored culms need nearly full shade to look good in this hot, arid climate I live in.

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Bambusa multiplex Alphonse Karr colors; Bambusa vulgaris vitata culms; and Himalayacalamus 'Candy Cane'- all nice clumpers with color

For those who want to learn more and/or find out where to buy bamboo, go to the American Bamboo Society Website-


  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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