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"Specializing in clumping, noninvasive varieties of bamboo for Florida landscapes."

  ABOUT BAMBOO

Appreciation |  Runners versus ClumpersGrowth Habit |  Uses |  Taxonomy and Distribution | 

 
Appreciation

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.

Runners versus Clumpers

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 and appreciated.

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 impressiveness.

Growth Habit

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 smallest.

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 plant.

Uses

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 of tasks.

 

Bamboo shoots -
freshly harvested and ready to cook.

 

Bamboo furniture
 

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.

Taxonomy and distribution

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.

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