Three Friends of Winter: Bamboo


Vertical bamboo along a backyard fence


Bamboo has a bad rap. Listening to some people you'd think bamboo the most feared plant species in North America: an invader that, unlike kudzu, has no respect for the frost line, the plant world's equivalent of Asian carp. But fear not. In many ways bamboo is just a paper dragon.

In my previous article, "Three Friends of Winter," I wrote about the idea of adding winter interest to your garden using a conceit originated in Asia more than a millennium ago. Winter's three friends are the plum, the pine and the subject of this article, bamboo. The old Chinese adage says that one should emulate the simple bamboo. It grows tall and strong and in high winds will bend but not break: endurance, strength and tenacity during times of strife.

Setting aside its reputation for a moment, let's look at bamboo as an aesthetic element in your garden and especially one with winter interest.


Ground-cover bamboo with leaves like banners waving in the icy wind

Although some bamboo are herbaceous and offer nothing but brown, spent culms during winter, most retain their canes with many hanging onto their evergreen leaves throughout the year. Some bamboo will loose their leaves if exposed to cold winds but retain them if sheltered by a wall, a fence or even snow. Others hang onto their leaves, letting them fade to a soft yellow, that then flutter like little banners in the icy wind.


Understory Pygmy bamboo with pine tree

Due to our cold winters and short growing season most of the taller bamboo favorable to our clime are on the short side - no taller than 10 to 15 feet - although some understory plants come by this naturally. On the plus side, an understory bamboo can take some shade. These heights can often be reached in only two or three seasons. A good stand of bamboo can act as a screen, disguise a blank wall or block a bad view. Architecturally, think vertical. On the other hand, many ground-cover bamboos can take quite a bit of shade and can be found under taller bamboo, dense trees or conifers. Think horizontal and mass plantings. Soil conditions are mesic - no deserts, no bogs - and bamboo will thrive in rich soils or clay and within a large pH range. Bamboo can be a very forgiving plant.


An evergreen bamboo under freshly fallen snow

Bamboo's bad rap
Yes, bamboo has a bad rap but everything you've heard is not completely true. Its reputation as a rampant spreader, a plant that refuses to even stay within the confines of the garden is only half of the story as not all bamboo are so inclined. Bamboo can be divided into two groups depending on their rhizomes: runners (leptomorph) and clumpers (pachymorph). As the names imply some like to travel while others prefer to stay put.

Runners and Clumpers
For identifying an unknown or generically named specimen the difference is crucial. A general rule to differentiate runners from clumpers is to look at the bamboo's rhizome system, the pulpy underground mass situated between the stem and the roots.

Runners have snake-like rhizomes ("lepto" means thin but I like to think "leap"). These are the culprits that shoot out in all directions, sometimes at amazing distances from the original plant, with new stalks forming wherever buds on the rhizome exist. Older groves will eventually criss-cross their rhizomes to form a thick mat. How thick? For harvesting timber bamboo a special rhizome power saw has been developed. In more hurried situations dynamite is used. However, this is not recommended for the home gardener.

Clumpers on the other hand do just that: their rhizomes like to clump together in a single mass with new growth around the edges. Their individual rhizomes are fat and bulb-like (pachy - as in pachyderm, think elephant). New growth does not stray far from the original plant's rhizome and will end in a similar bulb-like (but smaller) rhizome that will probably be pointing up.

Neither runners nor clumpers act like tree roots and will not - repeat, will not - send rhizomes into drain or water pipes or into cracks of foundation walls.

Keeping to clumpers, unfortunately, will limit your choices because most hardy bamboos are runners. But runners can be stopped in their tracks, literally, by constructing a rhizome barrier, a kind of bamboo corral. In designing a rhizome barrier you must adhere to three requirements; the barrier must be solid enough to prevent the rhizome from wiggling through it and must be deep enough - at least 2 feet - and high enough above ground - at least 2 inches - to prevent the rhizome from going under or over it, respectively. The barrier material can be anything from concrete to flexible HDPE plastic. Commercial barriers are available but you can be imaginative. I read in an on-line forum how someone had used an old (and free) metal mesh, industrial conveyor belt as a barrier - adaptive reuse, indeed!

Even with a barrier your bamboo may attempt an escape by slipping a runner or two above ground and over the barrier. Fortunately bamboo only send out runners during one part of the year - the appropriately named "shooting " season, usually late spring or early summer  - and an occasional patrol during this time armed with your pruner or a sharp space is all that's needed.

There are a few alternatives to in-ground barriers. One is to grow bamboo in a raised bed with the sides of the bed acting as the barrier. Another is to grow bamboo in pots. The disadvantage of pots is your bamboo will have to be given all the attention one gives to houseplants.

Do your research
Know your species; do your research: it's crucial to finding the particular bamboo that's appropriate to the requirements of your garden. And the best way to do that is to look up the plant name in the stacks and on the internet.

Best book on bamboo: Hardy Bamboos by Paul Whittaker. Everything you'd want to know about bamboo with details of specimens suitable to our climate range.

Online the American Bamboo Society has plenty of info and photos, sorted and cross-referenced plant lists and links to retail sources.



Big Bamboo by Fence

I like that big bamboo by the fence in your photos. What is it called and where can I buy it in Chicago? Also, that green bamboo in the snow? is cool - what is it and where can I buy it in Chicago?

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