Bamboo is probably the most underutilized category of
landscaping plants in Florida. The exotic tropical feel and elegance
strike a deep emotional chord that resonates with many people. In
gardens with big, mature specimens, it is common to hear people's voices
drop to hushed, reverential tones as the bamboos come into view.
Perhaps only palms rival bamboos in their ability to bring such a
feeling of tropical elegance to a landscape.
Large types with canes the diameter of soup cans carry an
ambience of primeval strength and power, while small types, with their
weeping fountains of foliage, have an air of elfin delicacy about them.
All are especially captivating on a windy day - watching masses of
bamboo foliage dance in the wind is a sight of extraordinary beauty.
We've all heard the horror stories: "Don't plant
bamboo - that stuff will take over your whole neighborhood!" Bamboos
have quite a reputation for invasiveness, and it is true that some kinds
do spread quite aggressively. What is less well known is that there is
a whole category of bamboos that do not spread aggressively and do not
represent a threat to the neighborhood, and that even the spreading
types vary considerably in their rate of spread.
Rhizome system of a running type of bamboo.
Rhizome system of clumping bamboo.
The two basic categories that most bamboos fall into, depending
on their growth habits, are runners and clumpers. Running bamboos have
long, cord-like underground stems called rhizomes, that colonize large
areas underground and send up new shoots many feet from the parent
canes, forming a grove of widely spaced canes. Clumping bamboos, on the
other hand, have very short, stout rhizomes that send up new canes only
inches from the existing canes, forming a very tight, compact clump,
and making them ideal plants for landscaping.
Running bamboo sending up new shoots, invading a field.
Clumping bamboo sending up new shoots -
never more than a few inches
from the existing canes.
Many of the running types can be quite aggressive spreaders
when grown in Florida, traveling horizontally as much as twenty or even thirty feet a year if conditions are to their liking.
Because their widely spaced canes are easily dug and transplanted,
running bamboos have been the ones over the years that have been most
widely planted in Florida. This has, unfortunately, given many people
the mistaken belief that all bamboo spreads like wildfire. This common
belief, and the lack of knowledge and availability of clumping types,
have kept the outstanding clumping bamboos from being more widely grown
Clumping bamboos have a number of other virtues that suit them
to human needs as landscape plants, beyond just their lack of
invasiveness. The tight growing habit of the clumpers make them an
outstanding visual screen and sound barrier, enabling urban and suburban
residents to surround their small city lots with a wall of green
foliage, giving them the privacy of country life while living in the
city. Few people can fail to be moved by the powerful, exotic beauty
that a patch of giant clumping bamboo brings to a landscape, so by
planting them one might actually increase one's property value. And
because the clumping types invest their energy in growing larger and
larger canes, rather than in an extensive rhizome system, they are
actually faster than the running types to reach full size and
The way in which bamboos put out new growth is quite
remarkable, and very different from that of most plants. Looking at a
patch of bamboo, it appears to be a forest of individual bamboo "trees",
but actually all of the canes, or culms, are connected to each other
underground, and they are actually all a single plant. The underground
structures that connect them are called rhizomes, and they are the heart
and soul of a bamboo plant. They are the place the plant stores food
produced by the foliage, and generates new canes.
When a patch of bamboo grows new canes, or culms, it does so by
feeding the new shoots with food energy produced by all the existing
foliage, photosynthesizing in the sun. Being fueled this way allows the
new shoots to grow at an explosive rate. The new shoots break through
the ground and rocket upward at breakneck pace, typically reaching their
full height in just six to eight weeks, sometimes growing a foot or
more a day. Each shoot emerges from the ground looking like a torpedo
breaking through the soil, with as big a diameter as it will ever have,
it races upward as a branchless, leafless pole, and only once it reaches
its full height does it sprout branches and leaves.
Because the growth of the new shoots is fueled by food produced
by the existing shoots, a small, newly planted bamboo needs some time
to progressively send up larger and larger culms before it reaches full
height and is sending up culms of the maximum size for that species.
Each new crop of canes is fed by the foliage of the previous crop, and
so the new canes grow larger than those of the previous crop.
Paradoxically, this means that for the first few years after planting,
the youngest canes in a clump are the largest, and the oldest canes are
So how long does it take to reach full size? It depends on
what size you start out with, and how big that species gets. Chinese
Goddess bamboo only grows to eight feet, so a three gallon pot planted
in the spring can be sending up full sized canes the year after
planting, sometimes even the same year it is planted. Fifty foot Wong
Chuk, or Royal Bamboo, when planted from a three gallon pot, might take
four or five years to reach full size from planting out a three gallon
pot, but only two years after planting a twenty five gallon potted
Bamboo is considered the world's most useful plant.
The jointed structure of a hollow tube with walls across the tube at
each node provides for both great strength and great flexibility. That
structure, combined with the tremendous amount of biomass bamboos
produce each year, have enabled bamboos to become utilized for hundreds
Bamboo shoots -
freshly harvested and ready to cook.
A partial listing of some of the uses to which bamboo is put
includes construction material for buildings, furniture, bridges, boats,
musical instruments, kitchen utensils, paper, woven mats &
basketry, and the new shoots of some varieties are prized for food.
Bamboo houses have survived earthquakes relatively unscathed while other
houses around them crumbled.
Bamboo is a member of the grass family. It represents
the grass family's way of producing tree-sized plants that can compete
with trees in a forest environment. There are over a thousand different
species of bamboo in the world, with a tremendous diversity of sizes,
growth habits, and environmental preferences. The largest grow to 120
feet tall with twelve inch diameter canes; the smallest are creeping
ground covers barely a few inches tall.
Most people associate bamboo with the Orient, and it is true
that there is a large center of diversity in China and Japan, but it
less well known that there are also bamboos native to Australia, Africa,
South America, and a single species that is native to North America.
The two biggest biodiversity hot spots for bamboo are China/Japan, and
Central/South America, with many hundreds of species native in each of
these areas. The Central/South American bamboos are generally either
from either lowland tropical areas, in which case they can't handle much
frost, or they are from cool, mountainous regions, in which case they
can't handle hot, humid summers. That pretty much rules out New World
bamboos for North Florida gardeners, although in the southern part of
the state some of the tropical lowland types do very well.
Only the China/Japan region has a climate approximating that of
North and Central Florida, with hot, humid summers alternating with
winters that frequently produce some hard freezes. Consequently, most of
the bamboos grown in this area are native to Asia.