This tree is of enormous cultural significance in China and even other Far Eastern countries. It is used for food, for construction, in weaponry, made into paper, turned into flutes, drawn on mahjong tiles…
The perfectly cylindrical, jointed, cool green shafts of bamboo are instantly recognisable.
What is probably not instantly recognisable is that bamboo is a member of the grass family, Poaceae. Yes, bamboo is botanically and taxonomically related to grasses – the grass of your lawn, grasslands, meadows, and savannahs. The bamboo sub-family Bambusoideae comprises of three ‘tribes’ and a total of 1,675 species.
Most species of this evergreen perennial flourish in humid and warm conditions in temperate and tropical climates. However, other species grow in somewhat more extreme climates such as the cold montane regions of the Himalayas and the hot tropical hills of Central America. It is a very hardy plant and various species bring an unlikely Far-Eastern touch across much of Europe, including the United Kingdom.
This woody grass bears flowers but does so even less frequently than that proverbial blue moon is seen; most species flower once every 60 to 120 years. One cannot predict when a bamboo tree will burst into flower.
Background and Origins
Bamboo has ‘been with us’ since…before us! Forerunners of bamboo were witnesses to death struggles between Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus, for one or two genera of these woody grasses covered large swaths of Asia in the late Cretaceous Period between 95 and 65 million years B.C.
Now, in our day, we associate bamboo with a cuddlier creature, the panda, and with good reason: pandas rely on bamboo to provide 99 percent of their diet which consists of bamboo leaves, shoots, and stalks. These modern-day species of bamboo descend from bamboo species of 30 to 40 million years ago.
Less distant, circa 7000 B.C., bamboo provided raw materials for construction, books, paper, and musical instruments in China. And the leaves and shoots of edible bamboo species have been sought-after ingredients in Far Eastern cuisine for millennia.
Bamboo plays such a large part in the lives of the Peoples of the Far East, from tribal and indigenous folk to modern urbanites, that many beneficial qualities are projected on it. For example, in Chinese culture the qualities of an ideal gentleman are attributed to bamboo; it is considered to reflect integrity, uprightness, and elegance. Many a Chinese poet has written paeans of praise to the bamboo as a symbol for some or another noble and virtuous man.
Bamboo stalks or shafts are known as culms. It is the culm that is popularly thought of as ‘bamboo.’ The vast majority of species’ culms are hollow. Bamboo is unique among trees in that its culms emerge from the ground at their full diameter; they do not grow thicker as they gain height.
Bamboo grows and spreads by way of its rhizomes, which are subsoil stems that link the root system to the culms. The rhizomes of each bamboo species generate growth in one of two patterns: running or clumping.
Running bamboo species, true to their name, frequently take over fair-sized areas of land, as the rhizome ‘runners’ spread aggressively. From the rapidly-spreading underground rhizomes, numerous culms branch out and emerge from the soil.
That said, running bamboos’ rate of spread and growth are variable, depending on the species, soil and climate.
Though slow-moving species do not spread much in unfavourable conditions, when running bamboo species do a ’sprint,’ they can cover several metres per year.
The species that grow by clumping are much better behaved. These species’ rhizomes do not send out runners; instead, they gradually enlarge the root system and increase the height of the culm. The root system is enlarged by only five to ten inches per year. Thus, they spread much more slowly than running species.
Running bamboo species’ pattern of growth is primarily horizontal across land; clumping bamboo species’ pattern of growth is primarily vertical through space.
The variety within bamboo is such that some differences between species are quite stark; consider that bamboo shoots of only some species are edible whereas most are toxic to humans. Some bamboo species are not particularly eye-catching but make excellent construction materials while others are useless for construction but are highly decorative.
At its extremes, bamboo is divided into ‘giant’ and ‘dwarf’ varieties. A very pretty and also hardy species, Pleioblastus akebono, grows to only 15 to 60 centimetres. At the other extreme is Dendrocalamus giganteus aka ‘Giant Bamboo.’ Its leaves are about as long as Pleioblastus akebono is tall! This bamboo can attain a height of up to 35 metres. That’s a multiple of nearly 60 in the heights of the two species.
Bamboo habitat stretches in a band across the world through its temperate and tropical zones, from Japan and Papua New Guinea in the east to most of South America, Central America, and South-Eastern United States in the New World, and spanning most of Korea, Vietnam, China, India, and Tropical Africa.
Each bamboo genus has a particular, preferred habitat which may be of vastly different areas in size. Consider that while Chimonobambusa ranges through the Eastern Himalayas, China, Indo-China, Taiwan, and Japan, and Sasa inhabits Eastern and Southern China, the Koreas, and Japan, both Phyllosasa and Sasaella are found only in Japan.
Though it may seem surprising, many clumping and running types of bamboo are hardy to USDA zone 5 and their root systems and rhizomes can withstand temperatures well below freezing – down to about -30° C (about -20° F).
Over the years, various species of bamboo have been introduced in Europe and the United States. Large species whose culms have high tensile strength, for example Guadua angustifolia, are grown on commercial farms for construction purposes. Small species which are visually appealing, e.g. ‘Cana Prieta,’ are cultivated in nurseries for ornamental uses.
Feeding, Care and Growing Tips
With over 1600 species divided into three distinct tribes, and with stark differences between species, no single set of care and growing tips can account for all of Bamboodom.
In the main, bamboos do not require extensive care. Young bamboo plants need to be watered regularly and amply; mature bamboo trees growing in open ground do not need to be watered as frequently. Potted bamboo needs to be watered more often; in hot or dry weather water it three or four times a week.
Grow your potted bamboo in nutrient-rich soil with a pH of between 6 and 7. Bamboo does not tolerate waterlogged conditions so make sure that your soil drains well. As long as your soil has good drainage, over-watering will not cause any harm to your bamboo. If your bamboo plant’s leaves curl inward, it is telling you it needs more water.
Most species of bamboo prefer more sun than shade so try to ensure that potted bamboos get sufficient sun. If you want to go the extra mile, mist your potted bamboos every other day or keep a humidifier nearby as most bamboos thrive in humid conditions.
Applying mulch to your bamboo is dually advantageous if you experience temperature extremes. In hot or dry weather, mulch prevents rapid evaporation of soil moisture. During cold snaps, mulch saves rhizomes and roots from freezing and possibly dying. You could allow dead leaves to remain where they fall; when they decompose they provide a natural mulch to their mother plant.
Most species of bamboo are nitrogen-hungry so use some 10-5-5 fertilizer or go for an organic fertilizer consisting of blood meal with composted coffee grounds and vegetable refuse.
You can prune a single potted bamboo plant to enhance its aesthetic appeal and you can prune a bamboo grove to check its growth and density.
Prune in autumn after shooting season has finished though withered or stunted culms may be cut to soil level at any time. Shape and trim your plant by cutting branches and culms just above the node, that is the joint ring. If you cut the culm, the bamboo will not grow any higher. On the other hand, if you prune branches regularly, you will stimulate culm growth. To prune branches, you can use pruners though to prune a culm you will need loppers or perhaps even a pruning saw.
If you decide to prune a mature bamboo for the first time, in the interest of enhancing the plant’s beauty you may want to plan ahead by visualising how your bamboo will look with which branches pruned just above which node, systematically marking the cutting lines just above the chosen nodes on the selected branches, and only then beginning to prune.
Be sure your pruner’s blades are clean and sterilise them with diluted rubbing alcohol.
Where To Buy Bamboo
Matching bamboo’s ever-increasing popularity, an ever-rising number of suppliers sell quite a number of species of the plant. Nurseries sell potted bamboo plants as do online sellers. Indeed, retailers, be they brick-and-mortar or online, actually specialise in specific bamboo varieties. Commercial growers provide bamboo of two or three of the larger species with strong culms for construction and building materials. Online nurseries sell various species of bamboo for different purposes including screening and fencing, planting in large gardens, and for indoor ornamental purposes.
You are not limited to acquiring bamboo by way of purchase; bamboo very sportingly propagates from cuttings. If you know someone who has a bamboo plant or tree, then you have a bamboo plant or tree!
Bamboo is so iconic a plant and it imparts so evocatively an atmosphere of the still-somewhat mysterious East that even artificial bamboo is becoming popular and is available through several name brands such as Laura Ashley and Earthflora.
How To Grow Bamboo From Cuttings
Taking cuttings from the many varieties of garden bamboos is fairly straightforward. A cutting can be taken from a plant’s culm as well as from emerging new growth. Autumn is the best season both to prune bamboo and take cuttings as well as to plant cuttings.
First, sterilise your pruners or loppers using diluted rubbing alcohol. To take cuttings from a culm, choose a mature plant (whose culm is) at least 30 centimetres tall, preferably more.
Take a cutting from the top of the culm. The cutting should be about 10 centimetres and include at least one node and at least one internode. It should not be more than one-third the height of the plant, preferably less. Dip the cutting in root hormone liquid and plant it in the appropriate type of soil.
You can also take cuttings from new growth that is emerging from the ground. Take a cutting 20 to 25 centimetres in length, making the cut at a 45-degree angle. Put it in a transparent pot filled with water and let it remain for one to two weeks, while you observe whether and how well the cutting is taking root. Change the water in the pot every alternate day.
Assuming the cutting is rooting, prepare a planting pot or an outdoor bed with the type of soil most suited to bamboo and plant the cutting.
How To Grow Bamboo From Rhizomes
Autumn is the best season to grow bamboo from rhizomes, though early spring after the last frost is also a good time.
Using a trowel and a spade dig up the soil and expose a rhizome. Using a craft knife or other knife with a sharp edge cut off a piece that has about three growth buds.
Clean the dirt and soil off the ends using a soft cloth and water. Plant it horizontally in a pot, buds facing up, under a layer of soil six to eight centimetres. Sprinkle water using a watering can but only to the extent of making the soil damp all through as overwatering can cause the rhizome cutting to rot. Water it every two days in a similar fashion. Keep the pot in the shade and away from direct or full sun but in a warm place. You may sprinkle a teaspoon of fertilizer with high phosphorous content.
After about five weeks, break the pot and transplant the rooting rhizome into the selected spot in your garden. Because the rhizome needs to be protected from sunlight, transplant it well after sunset.
A closing word of advice. If you’re nought but a serious-minded gardener, you may be perceived as a stick-in-the-mud by that gal you’re trying to impress. So don’t just be a bamboo grower, be a bamboo musician and you’ll be one cool dude like that Caribbean beachcomber who has friends at Radio Jamaica, is the boss of his island, and has a bevy of babes who’re crazy about him. What’s that— you haven’t even heard of him? You need to drop in at 1100 Bel Air Place. Ask for Julio.
How Fast Does Bamboo Grow?
Bamboo has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the Plant Kingdom’s fastest-growing members. Bamboo growth is neither uniform nor consistent; it is dependent upon a few factors such as species, soil, water, and climate.
That explained, commonly-grown species in temperate regions can grow up to 9 or 10 centimetres in a single day during the growing season.
According to Guinness World Records, bamboo is not just a contender, it is the Plant Kingdom’s undisputed speed champion: unnamed species have been clocked at 91 centimetres of growth in 24 hours (and that too in the United Kingdom). That works out to an average growth rate of 3.8 centimetres per hour.
In China, it is an annual occurrence for Phyllostachys edulis (‘Moso’) to emerge from the ground every spring and within a few weeks reach a height of up to 75 centimetres.
It is large bamboo species’ uniquely fast growth rates that, combined with these species’ great strength and versatility, making them the ‘go-to’ tree for many kinds of building and construction materials.
Common Bamboo Diseases and Problems
In their native habitats, most species of bamboos’ inherent anti-bacterial and anti-fungal qualities make them resistant to the usual plant diseases. However, bamboos outside their native habitats and especially those kept indoors are susceptible to diseases and insects. If you spot an insect infestation, use a thick swab dipped in insecticidal soap solution to wash the leaves. Do not apply the soap to the underside of the leaves if the insects are only on the upward side, and do not wash all the leaves on the same day. Increase the airflow and, if the plant is not already under full sun, increase its exposure to the sun. Yellow patches at or near the base of the plant may signal a fungus attack.
In gardens and other cultivated settings, incorrect exposure or watering, or improper care may well result in problems. While underwatering can be a cause of concern, its effects can easily be reversed by increasing the amount of water given to the plant. Much more dangerous is overwatering, especially when the soil has poor drainage. This deadly combination can cause the roots and rhizomes to begin to rot.
Other problems occur when exposure to the sun is too little or too much for the species in question. Too much sun will cause the leaves to scorch and die, affecting the rest of the plant.
(‘Lucky bamboo’ is not, in fact, bamboo and so its well-known problem of rot caused by over-submergence is not discussed here.)
How To Get Rid Of Unwanted Bamboo
You can get rid of unwanted bamboo using mechanical methods or chemical processes. However, we cannot in good conscience recommend any herbicides let alone glyphosate. We outline a mechanical method by which you can clear your plot of bamboo.
First, cut back all the culms to the ground. When the cut-back culms emerge again, wait until they are about 60 centimetres high, then cut them back again. Repeat three times. This repeated cutting will exhaust the plant’s subsoil food reserves so that it is weakened or even dies.
Next, water the soil very well to the extent of waterlogging it, and keep it waterlogged. Using a spade, shovel, and hoe as appropriate, dig up the soil and grub out all the rhizomes and root systems you can find. Use a heavy rake to ‘dredge’ the soil of any hard-to-find rhizomes. Finally, pour ample boiling water in the plot to be cleared.
When invasive species of running bamboo take over a parcel of land, they can be very difficult to eliminate because of their underground network of rhizomes and root systems. Sometimes the last resort and only resort is to plough up the land.
Instructions rendered, instead of destroying your unwanted bamboo you could always give it away to Earl Grant and his buddy Soho Joe so they can build another House of Bamboo.