Selecting Temperate Bamboos
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Promoting the Beauty and Utility of Bamboo

Growing, Using and Maintaining Temperate Bamboos

Susanne Lucas, Horticulturist, ABS President

It could be said that bamboo is the most mysterious plant in the world. Once thought to be among the most primitive of grasses, it has now been found (by means of DNA testing) to be one of the most highly evolved.

Flowering of some species occurs only once in a hundred years, while other species bloom annually or only sporadically. And, in terms of landscape use, bamboo has the reputation of the invasive beast, an uncontrollable nuisance, and yet the cold-hardiest of the bamboos do not run at all, but form dense clumps from well-behaved root systems. Bamboo evokes the essential color of green, and yet there exists a myriad of cultivars with yellow, gold, burgundy, blue and even black stems and leaves displaying intense variegation of gold and white.

The term bamboo refers to plants of the large subfamily of Bambusoideae within the family Gramineae (Poaceae). It embraces a considerable diversity of grasses, with representatives that grow only a few inches in height with vigorous rhizome root systems to giants of the tropics that can attain over 100 feet with trunk-like stems rising from great clumps. There are herbaceous bamboos living on the forest floor in the tropics, too, and cold temperate clumpers above timber line in the Himalayas.

This discussion will concentrate on the bamboos available for ornamental use in the northeastern United States, those species and forms that can tolerate the range of winter cold to below minus 15° F. It should be mentioned that for many species, the cold hardiness refers to leaf and stem tolerance - and while there are several bamboos evergreen in USDA zone 5, there are many bamboos which die down in the winter the same as many ornamental grasses do, only to emerge again with vigor in the spring and serve the ornamental landscape very effectively.

The horticultural use of bamboo in American landscapes is increasing, following the trends set in European gardens and as yet another example of the ultimate ornamental grass. Unfortunately in the past, the use of the running bamboo species was often careless, or it was planted and then ignored, resulting in “run-away” groves and irate neighbors. Just a little research could ensure success and great satisfaction, as there is a bamboo for (almost) any situation. (One great exception is that of wetlands - bamboo will not tolerate completely saturated soils, although some species have the ability to grow in marginally wet areas.)

Today there are over 300 subspecies, varieties and forms of over 200 species of bamboo in cultivation throughout the United States. Of that number, the potential number for use in the outdoor climate of the Northeast approaches 175. These are bamboos already in cultivation in the US; there are many potential ornamental gems that have yet to be collected in their homelands (i.e. China) and introduced into the United States. The United States Department of Agriculture lists bamboo as “prohibited entry” and a special import permit is required; once through Customs, the plant must serve time in the mandatory one-year quarantine.

Commercial production of bamboo in the United States is scattered and relatively new. Certainly bamboo has been propagated sporadically since its early introduction into the US over one hundred years ago, but the newer introductions and attractive cultivars have circulated among avid collectors.
Large wholesale operations are growing the same old species, mostly the same ones who have run amuck unchecked, missing the potential market of the clumpers and new introductions. And - perhaps the real challenge for the future of ornamental bamboo - retail garden centers, designers, and architects lack the knowledge and education necessary for successful landscape use.

Propagation is relatively easy once the growing habits of bamboo are understood. Hardy temperate bamboos can be propagated by division, from seed, or through in-vitro micropropagation. Re: division, the type of rhizome will determine whether the bamboo grows in a clump (clump-forming) or spreads widely (running). Running rhizomes may have roots at all nodes, or they may have roots only at the short internodes near the bases of the stems (properly called “culms” when discussing grasses).

Clumpers cannot be treated the same as runners; obviously a vast rhizome system is easy to divide compared to a tight clump.

Propagation from seed is more difficult, as bamboo seed is rarely available. The flowering phenomena of bamboo is a very complicated one, with many species flowering never being recorded and others occurring only once in many decades. Even after flowering patterns are identified, sometimes seed is never set nor viable. In vitro methods are moving beyond the experiment stage and showing promise; this propagation method could bring bamboo a new future, particularly with the importation of “clean” stock and the ability to increase numbers of the more-difficult-to-divide clumpers.

Production is led by demand, and it is here that we are seeing changes. Grasses, and now bamboos, are capturing our attention in the landscape: the assortment of habit, color, size is amazing; their adaptability finds them at home in so many situations; their growth habits can be easily manageable; their winter hardiness gives us an alternative to traditional evergreens; their structure allows for movement in the wind to add texture and sound to our landscapes. We are seeing bamboo in public and people are noticing bamboo. A recent project of landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh has brought bamboo into a public courtyard in Greenwich Village and received an award of merit from American Society of Landscape Architects.

Again, a little research will ensure success with bamboo. Due to the invasive behavior of vigorous running rhizomes, the selection of which bamboo to use is an important one. Proper siting is crucial. Not all bamboos are created equal. Running bamboos can solve erosion problems and cut down on maintenance requirements of more traditional plants, for example on slopes and within parking lots. However, as a privacy screen without rhizome barriers, running bamboo can bring law suits in small neighborhoods. The very cold-hardy clumping bamboos of the high mountains of China do not run, but also do not tolerate sun or extreme heat, and therefore must be sited properly to thrive.

The mysterious flowering cycles of many bamboos also can pose a problem in production and in the landscape. Mass propagation of a species on the verge of flowering can be disastrous, as flowering can bring death to the plant - resulting in the loss in all the propagules. If the flowering comes just a year or two after distribution to the trade, landscapes can be littered with specimens dying from exhaustion due to flowering, and clients will demand replacements. Knowing the flowering cycle is very important, and using new generation stock for propagation will ensure decades of growth without the interruption of flowering.

Last, but not least, is the knowledge of pests and diseases. In the northeast, we are fortunate not to have the problem of disease on bamboo, which can be a concern in the subtropical climates. Pests are few, and mostly occur in greenhouse situations not unlike many other crops. In the landscape, however, there is only one major pest of bamboo and that is the bamboo mite. This spider mite is not the usual red-spotted mite, but Schizotetranychus celarius , an uninvited Asian import who feeds exclusively on the undersides of certain bamboo leaves. The mites feed along the middle portions of the leaves, the resulting damage looking a bit like leafminer damage and giving the overall impression of chlorosis in extreme infestations. This pest is the number one villain of bamboo in the ornamental landscape, and anyone involved with maintenance of bamboo should be well informed.

The allure of bamboo is undeniable. With proper site selection and research into the species growth characteristics and requirements, there is a place for bamboo in the landscapes of the Northeast. Move aside the mystique and you will find a very compatible plant with few maintenance concerns and a lot of appeal to the senses. After all, bamboo is just another ornamental grass - but one with a more human connection.


RECOMMENDED BAMBOOS FOR THE NORTHEAST

The following is a list of recommended species of bamboo for the Northeast.
For a more extensive list of bamboos cultivated in the United States, complete with their characteristics, hardiness data, and a list of sources, contact The American Bamboo Society .

CLUMPERS -
noninvasive root systems, from high-elevations in China,

These plants do not tolerate full sun, but prefer to be understory plants, with overhead canopy above. Cooler, morning sun is acceptable, but hot, midday sun causes the curling of the leaves. Good woody companions are rhododendron, pine, hemlock, leucothoe. Good herbaceous companions are hosta, epimedian, vinca minor, hakonechloa, ceratostigma.

Fargesia nitida - Fountain Bamboo, and its many cultivars
nitida ’de Belder', ‘McClure', ‘Nymphenburg', ‘Wakehurst’
- Hardy to minus 20° F - Heights to 18 feet

Fargesia murielae - Umbrella Bamboo - NEW GENERATION stock from seed
OLD STOCK IS IN FLOWERING MODE
- Hardy to minus 20° F - Height to 15 feet

Fargesia dracocephala
- Hardy to minus 10° F - Height to 15 feet

Fargesia robusta
- Hardy to zero° F - Height to 20 feet

Fargesia rufa
- Hardy to zero° F - Height to 10 feet


GROUND COVER BAMBOOS
-running root systems - need containment


Pleioblastus pygmeus - Pygmy Bamboo
TOTALLY INVASIVE - USE CAUTION WHEN SITING
- but a perfect substitute to pachysandra or English ivy, as it can be mowed like a lawn - Hardy to 10° F (not evergreen)

Pleioblastus viridistriatus - Green and Gold-stripe, bright yellow variegation adds color and texture.
Hardy to 10° F (not evergreen)

Sasa veitchii - Kumazasa
Traditional Japanese garden bamboo; great companion in woody garden; dark green with winter albo-margination - great seasonal interest. Hardy to 0° F - EVERGREEN

Shibataea kumasaca
Short, broad leaves, almost shrubby. Loves acid soils.
Height to 6 feet. Hardy to 0° F - evergreen

TALL, TREELIKE
Running root systems - need containment


Phyllostachys aureosulcata - Yellow-groove Bamboo
Most reliable tall bamboo in the northeast. Green culms with yellow groove.
Height to 25 feet. Hardy to minus 10° F.
and its cultivars :
Spectabilis - yellow culms with green stripe
Aureocaulis - yellow culms, no stripes
Harbin - fine yellow and green stripes, ribbed culms

Phyllostachys vivax -
Green culms. Height to 35 feet. Hardy to minus 5 degree F.
and its cultivar - Aureocaulis - yellow with green stripes

Phyllostachys bissetti
Dark green culms.
Height to 25 feet. Hardy to minus 15° F.

Phyllostachys nuda
Dark green culms, powdery when just emerged.
Height to 25 feet. Hardy to minus 20° F.


Phyllostachys nigra cultivar ‘Hale ’ - Black Bamboo
Culms turn black as culms mature with age.
NOT VERY COLD HARDY - to 0° F. - needs protection
Height to 20 feet.

 

See also: Introduction to Hardy Bamboos and the Index to Cold Hardy Species.


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