• Consider Bamboo

    by Dana Goforth

    the winter storm
    hid in the bamboo grove
    and quieted away.

    Matsuo Basho 1644–1694, Japanese Haiku Master

    bamboo brush paintingI was kneeling in front of a tomato plant, looking for the source of the black crumbles that covered one stem when someone walked in my backyard. Not an easy thing to do since the gate was closed and locked. Peering between the plants, I saw a little, old Asian lady dressed in a faded, floral smock and a tattered blue sweater. Her short hair was mostly white and she was carrying a plastic bag with the red Safeway logo stamped on the side. As I watched her, she purposely headed to the large clump of bamboo that separated my yard from the neighbors and pulled out a two-foot machete from the deceptive smock. As I stood up, I pulled my two-inch Felco pruners from my holster and said “Hello.”

    It was late spring but the tomato plants were huge and everything else in my garden was thriving. Including the bamboo as evidenced with the new shoots emerging in the basement, the hot tub deck, and in the downstairs bathroom. I cautiously approached the lady who magically appeared, and smiled. I wasn’t too worried because I was about twice as tall, but that machete… She smiled back, which was a good sign. Apparently, she was known in town to visit any bamboo grove and harvest the ‘culm’s’ or shoots in the spring. I pointed to the errant shoots poking out of the deck, hoping she would clean them up. She shook her head and said “No good.” With her shiny cleaver, she pointed to the short shoots peeking out of the ground. “These.” she said and skillfully whacked one free. My first lesson in bamboo harvesting.

    The Botany

    Bamboo is a monocot of the true grass Poaceae family and is of the woody Bambuseae tribe. Giant bamboos can grow up to seven inches in diameter and are the largest members of the grass family.

    The main stem of any bamboo is called a culm or shoot when it emerges from the ground. The culm is made up of solid, jointed segments called nodes. Internodes is the space between the nodes and is hollow in most species. Branching mainly occurs at the nodes and is varied in their numbers, length, and color. Bamboo foliage leaves grow at different intervals along the branches depending on the species. Culms also have leaves but their primary purpose is to protect the shoot as it grows. Eventually, these secondary leaves dry up and fall away.

    Beneath the soil, rhizomes transport water and nutrients, anchor the plant and store food. There are two types of rhizomes; Leptomorph rhizomes can grow many feet in a season and have numerous culms, and Pachymorph rhizomes, which will grow into one shoot.

    Bamboo is native to many countries including Africa, South American, but most notably, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Japan.


    Bamboo is extremely versatile and has been used by generations for numerous purposes, most notably as construction material. Because bamboo grows rapidly, some timber species over three feet in one day, molds can be made to shape the new shoots for specific purposes. Square bamboo timbers are common. Recently, bamboo flooring has become an international rage when designing eco-friendly buildings. In Chinese medicine, bamboo is uses for healing infections and bamboo charcoal is said to relieve joint pain. Paper, kitchen utensils (duh), musical instruments, woven baskets and even as cooking vessels are some of the more common products available. I love my chopsticks but I’ve found that bamboo cutting boards dull my knives fast. Recently, bamboo clothing has become popular, but since bamboo fibers cannot be made into traditional yarns and the cloth is actually a chemically-produced rayon.

    Your Bamboo

    With over 500 bamboo species, subspecies, varieties and cultivars, choosing a plant can be daunting. First, ask yourself if you want a running (leptomorph rhizome) or clumping (pachymorph rhizome) plant. If you choose a running bamboo, be prepared, you run the risk of confronting a machete welding old lady in the spring. Clumping bamboos are easier to control and do well in containers.

    Next question, height? In the right environment, some bamboos will reach over 60 feet in height. Dwarf bamboo’s such as Dwarf Whitestripe (Pleioblastus fortunei) and many sasa species are excellent ground covers (running type but easily managed). An added bonus is that several dwarf bamboos have beautiful, variegated leaves and do well under large trees. Some bamboos grow tall and straight while others like Mexican Weeping (Otatea acuminate aztecorum) will create a graceful arch up to 15’. Native to China and Japan, the genus Phyllostachys make up the classic, open bamboo groves and do well as barriers or living fences. Clumping Fargesia spps. also make beautiful hedges and range from 8’ to 16’. An added bonus; this type of bamboo is the food preferred by giant pandas… Just saying.


    To really impress your gardening friends, look beyond the leaf for color. Bamboo stems are much more lively. Black Cherry (Fargesia sp. ‘Jiuzhaigou’ 4) stems age to a deep wine color with purple and red branches. In shade, the culms of Himalayan Blue (Himalayacalamus hookerianus) have a stunning blue-grey coating, and Alphonse Karr (Bambusa mulitples) has yellow stems with irregular green stripes that can turn red in the sun. A quiet stunner is Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) with a lovely leaf structure and does quiet well in large, containers as a background for other plants.


    Believe it or not, bamboos are very sensitive to heat, humidity, and sunlight. While they might survive is a less than optimal environment, they will not thrive. Additionally, some bamboos such as Tibetan Princess (Himalayacalamus microphyllus) and Water Bamboo (Phyllostachys heteroclada ‘Purpurata’) do well in a waterscape. On our foggy coast, Semiarundinaria yamadorii (no common name) and Green Onion (Pseudosasa japonica ‘Tsutsumiana’) are both salt and extreme cold tolerant. Finally, many bamboos are native to extremely high altitudes and thrive in brittle temperatures.

    Choosing bamboo for your garden, like any plant, takes time and research. I found bamboo especially interesting because of all the cool nuances inherent to the species.


    Several common plants disguise themselves as the lofty bamboo. Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana) and Heaveny Bamboo (Nandina domestica) are the most recognizable. Here are several things to look for in the real deal: 1. Must have solid nodes and almost always hollow internodes. 2. Never has bark. 3. Rarely flowers and never any flower petals. 4. If a does bamboo flower, the fruits are like grains and never soft fruit.

    Day Trip

    I love bamboo! When I discovered there was a bamboo nursery nearby, I was in heaven. Bamboo Giant is a funky, family owned nursery on 31 acres in Aptos. They claim to have the largest display of timber bamboo in North America. I don’t know if that’s true but they cultivate many of their plants and are very knowledgeable. There is a lovely, outdoor koi pond with a viewing gazebo and a footpath that winds through a giant bamboo forest. If you go, pray for wind: The timber talks! I have been there several times and have yet to see anyone welding a machete.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on September 26, 2013

    Topics: Diggin' It


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