Bamboo

Unfussy and quick to establish, bamboos are ideal for screening and specimen planting, says Dave Holland.

Bamboo Himalayacalamus hookerianus - photo: GPL
Bamboo Himalayacalamus hookerianus - photo: GPL

Few plants evoke the Orient like bamboo. Yet its geographical range extends well beyond China and Japan, and garden-worthy bamboos from South Africa to Chile are now commercially available.

Bamboo forms a huge group or tribe within the Graminaceae family, so all the species are technically grasses, albeit with woody stems, which in some cases achieve the proportions of trees.

Green is the predominant foliage colour and all bamboos are evergreen, but their main attribute is arguably their canes, whose colours range widely: gold, pale yellow, grey, blue-green, green, black and even variegated with yellow and green stripes. Their often delicate leaves accentuate the canes, emerging from short spurs at the cane nodes, usually in intricate arrangements.

Growth follows two main patterns, with new canes emerging either close to the parent plant, giving rise to a localised clump, or from spreading rhizomes, eventually resulting in extensive stands. This latter pattern, coupled with the incredible vigour of some species such as Chimonobambusa marmorea, makes some specifiers wary of them. However, most of the varieties currently available are quite manageable.

Although they appear a coherent group to look at, bamboo's botanical classification is quite complex and very much incomplete, leading to frequent revisions in nomenclature. This confusion is largely because of its strange flowering habit - often in mass synchronicity as rarely as once every 80 years or more. Indeed, many new finds and existing cultivars have never been seen in flower, nor will be for some time.

Growing requirements are quite easily met. There are no specific soil requirements - bamboo should perform well in any reasonably fertile medium. They are also generally shallow-rooted, and will therefore pose little risk to drains or other street features. They perform well for land-stabilisation projects.

Where grown in containers, the main requirement beyond watering will be to ensure that they are adequately fed. Many species originate from restricted locations and sheltered valleys. These will not tolerate exposed situations, in contrast to those from more upland areas. Some watering will be necessary upon planting, but, once established, bamboo is quite resilient and each year new canes will be bigger and stronger than the previous season.

Bamboo is propagated almost entirely by division. When seed presents itself, the seedlings typically show enormous variation, often resulting in new cultivars. Bamboo is largely free of any pest and disease problems, although aphids and occasionally bamboo mite may make an appearance.

WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY

- Brian Trollip, buyer, The Palm Centre, Ham Central Nursery, Greater London

"Some are invasive but many are very well-behaved and even spreading ones can be semi-contained. A key selling point is speed of growth - small plants will become specimens in two to three years. They can be very tall and erect, and are excellent for screening, which is the main thing our customers look for. Good ones for this are Phyllostachys aurea Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and P. bissetii.

"They also look good as ground cover - Pleioblastus spp. form very dense mats and spread over a wide area. We import much of our stock but do grow these dwarfs on site.

"Care should be taken with ones like Phyllostachys humilis and Chimonobambusa marmorea. But, they respond fine to containment - they tend to dwarf naturally and new growth remains healthy, although you would need to keep an eye on them to water and feed. It is a good idea to divide those grown in containers every three years."

Michael Brisbane, owner, Jungle Giants, Shropshire "We are supplying a lot for hedging and screening, especially Fargesia spp. as they are pretty dense. Bamboo grows really quickly so you get fast results soon after planting. You may need to put in physical barriers, even for clump-formers.

"One of the drawbacks is flowering - we have Fargesia nitida in flower at the moment and it then largely dies out leaving holes in the landscape. But it is a myth that all bamboos die after flowering.

"I very much like the new genus, the Borinda from Tibet and Yunnan. It is clump-forming and very tall with blue stems but all the varieties are quite rare. Black bamboo is a good seller. It sounds unusual, is easy to grow and is the most popular, but there are better bamboos. Fargesia is better behaved, very adaptable and hardy enough to be grown UK-wide."

IN PRACTICE

- Andy Mogridge, co-owner, The Rodings Plantery, Essex

"We find bamboos are very pollution-tolerant and vandal-proof. If they get broken or even if they are burned, they grow back from their roots.

"They tend to root in the top 30cm of soil and they won't interfere with drains. Near Tarmac some of the stronger growers can push through, particularly when it gets soft in warm summer weather.

"We've used them in many ways, for example as ground cover on roundabouts. When they get to look tatty, they can be mown over and will put on fresh new growth. They also make a fine leafy hedge. We developed the grounds of a listed building and used Semiarundinaria fastuosa as a screen that extended up two storeys.

"For the lower storey we up-pruned to expose the canes so you could see into the rest of the garden. It doesn't overhang or drop leaves."

SPECIES AND CULTIVARS

- Bambusa ventricosa originates from south China and has distinctly bulbous nodal sections. While semi-tropical and preferring sun and warmth, it is a good choice for containers or sheltered southern areas.

- Chusquea culeou Award of Garden Merit (AGM) originates from Chile. Clumping in habit, it eventually reaches 4m. Its leaves form distinctive clusters on short stems around the nodes.

- Fargesia murielae AGM makes a good candidate for container planting. It has thin, elegant canes in graceful arches reminiscent of a fountain. A clump-former, it grows up to 1.5m.

- Fargesia nitida is another thin-caned bamboo, with a more vertical habit, making it useful as a screen. Its height is around 3m with little spread.

- Himalayacalamus hookerianus is a very recent introduction with pale blue canes originating from more upland areas of the Himalayas. It is an upright, clumping plant that will reach 6m.

- Indocalamus tessellatus AGM stems from China and is a spreading, dwarf plant with very large, long leaves. It doesn't grow taller than 1m.

- Muhlenbergia dumosa is a very open North American bamboo with a feathery form. It is a clump-former with arching stems and is best grown in full sun. It will tolerate some drought. This species grows to 3m.

- Phyllostachys nigra AGM features attractive, fully black stems, though young growth emerges green. A popular, clump-forming plant, it may reach 5m but is usually shorter.

- Pleioblastus variegatus (syn. P. fortunei) AGM is a slowly spreading dwarf bamboo. Its leaves are variegated with white stripes.

- Pseudosasa japonica AGM is a spreading, medium-sized plant up to 5m in height with thin canes and narrow, deep-green leaves. It is at its best in light shade.

- Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda has been recently introduced from China and is known as the walking-stick bamboo. It has enlarged nodes, which form a notable feature on the canes. Even though it is a spreader, it is good for planters and best in light shade.

- Sasa veitchii comes from Japan. It is a spreading dwarf, no higher than 1m, with large leaves bordered by a fringe of pale brown withered leaf tissue. It will grow in sun or semi-shade and is useful for land stabilisation.

- Sasaella masamuneana is another spreading dwarf bamboo that is quick to establish. It appreciates some sun and doesn't grow taller than 1m.

- Semiarundinaria fastuosa AGM is a tall, vigorous, hardy bamboo from Japan, whose glossy green canes grow to 6m.

- Sinobambusa tootsik has a long cultural heritage in China and Japan. Growth follows a clumping pattern and is distinctly upright. It is best grown as a specimen plant with a height of around 3m.

- Thamnocalamus crassinodus is a large, clumping bamboo from Nepal. The canes arch over, with its small leaves creating a feathery effect. It is at its best as a specimen plant in semi-shade. Its height is 5m.

- Yushania anceps is a large, clump-forming plant that is often used for screening. It displays upright canes with billowy top growth and reaches 4m in height.


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