Bamboo is amongst the easiest and the fastest-growing plants to put in the ground, notoriously so actually. There are species of bamboo that can grow nearly three feet in a single day, reaching up at a rate of over an inch per hour. It’s also infamous for being invasive, spreading two to four feet outwards every year (if not kept in cheek).
But, bamboo can be incredibly useful as well. Thousands of things are built from bamboo, everything from toothbrushes to flooring to furniture to tomato stakes. It’s a great source of fresh oxygen. Bamboo is a fantastic erosion-control plant. Some bamboos put out flowers annually, and they can help the bees and butterflies. They make great living fences. Many species are delicious as well.
In other words, whatever negatives we may hear about bamboo, without a doubt this is a plant worth becoming familiar with, and in all likelihood, there is a place for some type of bamboo in our gardens.
Some General Bamboo Info
Bamboo is a huge group of evergreen plants from the subfamily Bambusoidae of the grass family. There are over 1000 species of bamboo, and giant bamboo is actually the largest member of the grass family. Giant bamboo can measure seven inches wide and 75 feet tall! Japanese dwarf bamboo, on the other hand, only reaches about a foot tall.
The many species of bamboo are divided into three distinct clades: New World herbaceous species, tropical woody bamboos, and temperate woody bamboos. Within these clades, bamboos are considered either clumping, which grow slowly from a central root base, or running, which can send out runners that travel several meters underground.
- Fun Fact: The “Lucky Bamboo” commonly grown in water as a cool, curly houseplant is not actually bamboo at all. It just gets called so because it has visible segments and climbs vertically like bamboo.
So, Where Does Bamboo Grow?
Bamboo is native to Asia, spanning from the Himalayas to Japan. It grows from the equator to about 50 degrees N. To the south, Australia has several endemic species, and to the West, sub-Saharan Africa has native bamboo. Central and South America have lots of varieties, and they grow natively into the Southeastern US.
That said, while bamboo doesn’t grow native in Europe or much North America, there are several species that can withstand cold weather (below zero degrees Fahrenheit) and survive. In other words, there are lots of places in North America and Europe that have begun to cultivate bamboos as well.
Getting into Planting Bamboo
Rather than living in fear of bamboo, it’s better that we get to know it and learn how to plant it for how we’d like to use it. With some bamboos, there is little concern about invasiveness. With some bamboos, we have an endless source of building materials for simple construction projects like trellises, arbors, and compost bins. With some bamboo, we’ve got another tasty treat to add to our homegrown food stores.
- Clumping bamboo is slow to spread and very predictable, with all new shoots coming from the same centralized culm. For those worried about invasiveness with bamboo, clumping varieties are the right choice. Clumping bamboos have rhizomes that grow upward rather than outward, like running bamboos. Clumping bamboos can range from very small, a couple of feet tall, to 50-foot giants that can be used as construction timber.
Weeping bamboos, particularly from the Fargesia genus, are very ornamental, easy to control, and come in a stunning array of colors: blues, greens, yellows, reds, oranges, purples, etc. They are also very cold-hardy, with some varieties surviving down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Construction grade bamboo is used to build homes in many tropical countries, but that’s not much of a possibility in the US, save for commercial bamboo products like flooring and furniture. Nevertheless, growing large bamboo is a lot of fun for the DIY enthusiast.
Bambusa oldhamii has large stalks that can reach over 50 feet high and up to four inches in diameter. This variety is clumping (no worry with invasiveness) and tolerates freezing temperatures down to 20 degrees F. It can be grown as far north as Virginia over to California and all the way out to Hawaii.
- Contrary to what many people think, not all bamboo is edible, and even edible bamboos should be processed to make them safe to eat. In their raw state, the bamboo shoots (that’s the only edible part) contain toxins that must be destroyed by simply boiling them for about 30 minutes, changing the water after about 20 minutes.
For those who enjoy bamboo as a vegetable, there are several species that provide choice edible shoots that can be cultivated right in the USA. Bambusa oldhamii (listed above) has good shoots. Phyllostachys edulis and P. dulcis are two other large, choice edible bamboos that tolerate temperatures down to 0 degrees F; however, they are running bamboos are require more control. Chimonobabmusa varieties (also running) offer several species that are good for shoots and can survive cold temperatures.
Bamboo can be a beautiful and rewarding plant to grow. Like with many things, having some knowledge about bamboo makes the experience all the better. With a little foresight, there is little doubt, you’ll be able to find a bamboo that works for you.
- How to Grow Bamboo at Home
- How Sustainable is Bamboo Fiber?
- 10 Creative Ways to Incorporate Bamboo into Your Eco-Friendly Life
- How to Grow Edible Bamboo
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