Bamboo is in a group of plants being placed in the ‘Grass Family’, “Poaceae”. They range in size from just a few inches high to over 70 feet tall. Bamboo in the ‘right place’ can be a real asset to the landscape. Bamboo in the ‘wrong place’ can create a huge mess, depending on where it is and the variety used. Most Bamboo used as ‘ornamental plants’ are in the range of about 4’ tall to near 40’ tall. There are a several hundred different varieties, but generally about 150 or so, are sold commercially for landscape use, depending on the geographic location.
Foliage & Use
Bamboo can be really beautiful plants. Most have bright green foliage that is on the plants pretty much all year long. Bamboo generally gives a ‘Tropical Feeling’ in landscapes where it is used. It can make an effective screen for privacy or to protect areas from strong breezes. There are only a few problems with insects with most Bamboo, but there might be a few to deal with. Some are prone to Mealy Bugs, others can be infested with Scale. Neither will kill the plant, it may make them a little unsightly if not controlled.
Foliage variations are also quite large. Some have very small leaves, only about ½” long and very narrow. Others may have ‘giant leaves’ by comparison, 3” wide and 18” to 20” long. These are kind of the extremes; most would be more in the 4” to 8” long range. A few Bamboos have variegations in the foliage. There might be deep green foliage with white stripes. Some of the smaller ones can have yellow colorations in the foliage.
Planting & Transplanting
Bamboo is available at both our nurseries all year. It can be planted anytime of year in most of southern California, with the best time to plant from March to October when the weather is warm. Plants will start growing more quickly if you plant it at this time. Transplanting or dividing should also be done when the weather is warm, May to September is the best time for this.
Pruning should be done mostly when it's warm, this is when they send up the new culms, simply cut the culm a the height you want. If a culm shoots up 'off season' you can cut it anyway.
Soil & Fertilization Needs
Bamboo generally like soils rich in organic material, and with good drainage. Be generous with ‘planting mixes’ when you first plant them out. Most will grow ‘well’ in hard packed clay soils, or even decomposed granite, but they will generally grow faster and look better if the soil has been amended when planted. A fertilizing program with a high nitrogen plant food will encourage larger foliage, and faster growth. Generally a good application around the plant about every 2 to 3 months starting in spring will keep them looking great. There's not a lot of need to feed them after September as the weather cools.
To get the new plants off to a good start, keeping the soil moist is important. If it is warm, probably a good watering about 2 times a week at first. After a few months this can be reduced to once a week or less. After they become established, a good deep watering every 3 to 4 weeks is usually fine. If we have a ‘wet winter’ they may do well with no additional water during the cooler months.
Generally Bamboo is fairly easy to grow, if you choose a variety suited to your particular location. Some Bamboo is cold sensitive, so some varieties may be damaged if the temperatures go down to near freezing. Others can survive temperatures down to 0° F. A few will survive even lower to about -15°, but that is not important for most of us.
Two Basic Types of Bamboo - Clumping and Running
What is usually more important is the way the Bamboo varieties grow. There are two basic growing patterns. “Clumping” and “Running”. This is most important if you are planning to plant them in the ground. Clumping Bamboo sends the new shoots, known as ‘culms’, up near the original plant. The clumps of these plants grow slowly larger in diameter, spreading slowly. The clump is usually quite thick or dense, with the culms growing very close together. Running Bamboo send out underground ‘stolens’ or ‘runners’ that sprout up some distance from the original planting, and can create problems. This spreading can be 2’ to 3’ away, or in some cases much more, perhaps 8’ to 10’ from the original planting. These Running Bamboo can become a nuisance if not controlled, and it can come up in areas you don’t want them. Maybe even worse, in your neighbor’s yard.
How to Tell the Difference between Clumping and Running
There is a way to tell on most Bamboo, if it is a ‘runner’ or a ‘clumper’. Running Bamboo ‘usually’ has a groove on one side of the culm. Clumping Bamboo has round culms, with no groove. There are a few exceptions to this ‘rule’, on some of the small types of Running Bamboo, there may be no groove, or the groove is too small to really notice. Generally this is considered about 90% accurate.
Keeping Bamboo 'Runners' in Control
There are ways to try to keep the ‘runners’ from becoming invasive. Generally it is by using some sort of barrier in the soil. The barrier can be very thick plastic or sheet metal, buried into the soil to about 20” deep. This barrier should be above the soil by about 2” to 3” to keep the ‘running parts’ from crossing over the barrier. It is best if the barrier is slanted ‘away’ from the clump, to encourage ‘upward’ growth, rather than downward growth. Sometimes this is difficult to do (sloping it, but better if you can). Even so, it is a good idea to inspect the barrier once in a while to be sure it all stays behind the barrier. If you are trying to control a lower growing type, perhaps 15” is deep enough.
Choosing the Right Bamboo
When choosing your Bamboo, try to find as much information as you can on the different growth habits of these plants. How tall it will grow, running or clumping, can you keep it shorter (to your desired height) by trimming it back. As an example Bambusa oldhami can grow to 40 or 50 feet tall in Southern California. But you can still have nice lush plants if you trim the tall growing culms to about 16’ tall. It takes a little attention to do this, but the clump will generally be even more thick and dense.
Many select a Bamboo because of the ‘unusual’ or ‘different’ culms it might have. Most are solid green, but there are some of bright yellow with deep green stripes. Others are ‘jet back’ in color making a wonderful contrast with the bright green foliage. Some ‘runners’ have yellow culms with a green stripe in the groove. Another is just the opposite, green culm with a yellow groove. Some have interesting trunks, that ‘zig zag’ some can become swollen, either at the ‘nodes’ (rings) or between the ‘nodes’ (called ‘internodes)’. Others may have a ‘grey color’ or some choose the very large culms of 6” to 8” in diameter. The last ones, that are very large, you probably can’t keep those a lot shorter, most will grow to 70’ to 100’ tall, so be sure you have the right place for them. They are magnificent plants in the right area.
There are also some very low growing Bamboos, often used as a ‘ground cover’. These are mostly running types of Bamboo, and generally grow to about 6” to 12” high. Often these are ‘mowed’ or cut back close to the ground about once a year. Usually early springtime, so in a short time, they have sprouted with all new growth and lush foliage for spring and summer.
The first year they are planted out, they may be slow to show a lot of new growth. The roots are becoming established none the less. So be sure to keep them moist (not wet all of the time) and use a good plant food. The following season they should explode. Some Bamboo is considered some of the fastest growing ‘woody’ plants on earth!!! The new culms out of the soil usually grow to their full height in just a few months. So this might mean 15 feet (or more) in one month. 6” to 10” a day may not be unusual in Southern California.
Once you start growing Bamboo you may find many different interesting things about this large family of plants. It is used for food for humans and animals, construction of buildings, re-enforcement, ornamental use, etc. We have seen a surge in Bamboo used as flooring recently. Bamboo is also processed to be used in clothing. The flowering space for different Bamboos can also be a very interesting study.
Interesting Facts about Bamboo
The name “Bamboo” was introduced in 1778 from an Indian word “Mambu” or “Bambu”.
There are approximately 1000 different species of Bamboo which is in the “Grass” family, Poaceae. Rice, Corn and our own lawns also belong in the ‘grass’ family.
Some Bamboo are among the fastest growing plants in the world. Some grow to 100 feet in one season. During ‘ideal’ conditions in some places you can actually watch it grow. Some varieties can grow three feet or more in one day.
Most Bamboo rarely blooms. The bloom “cycle” is different for each species. It can range from 30 or 40 years to over 100 years. For some there is no record of them blooming at all. Others may bloom some off and on. But most, bloom very heavy when they bloom, which exhausts the plant and it usually dies. Another oddity is when an exact species blooms it will bloom all over, for thousands of miles. They all bloom at the same time, pretty much world wide.
Whole forests have died when it blooms. In some cases this had caused economic disasters and even famines and death. When the economy of those dependent on that Bamboo for a living can no longer use it, it becomes a major disaster. This has happened in parts of India every 30 to 35 years. In China it has effected the Panda population when the forests they feed on bloom and die. Bamboo is a very important part of the economy in many parts of the world being used as a construction material. It is very strong, used to re-enforce concrete, build bridges, etc. It is used for scaffolding for new construction for very tall buildings.
Other uses for Bamboo include: Food, Medicine, Poison, Weaving, Plywood, Musical Instruments, Wine Vats, Ship Building, Paper Pulp, Diesel Fuel, Gramophone Needles, Pipe Lines, and Rockets filled with gunpowder. Brewing Beer, Furniture, Kites, Baseball Bats, Flooring, Fishing Poles and many other things.
Walter Andersen Nursery has built its reputation on providing the highest quality plant material and the best customer service backed by a professional staff. This, along with the widest variety of plant material available anywhere in San Diego has kept generations of San Diegans coming to Walter Andersen Nursery year after year. Contact them directly at 619 224 8271 (San Diego Store) or 858 513 4900 (Poway Store).