Bamboo: A Guide

Learn how to grow and manage this giant evergreen grass.

April 15, 2011
For many people, the word bamboo conjures up images of dense thickets of rampant spreading canes. While this is true of many types of bamboo, some species are not invasive. Evergreen members of the grass family, bamboos range from petite miniatures to massive giants. There are over 100 species of bamboo, found from the tropics to mountaintops. While most bamboos are tropical or subtropical, there are hardy bamboos that can survive temperatures of –10° to –20°F. 
There are two main types of bamboos: running and clumping. Running types send out far-reaching rhizomes and can colonize large areas. Control running bamboos with 3- to 4-foot-deep barriers of sheet metal or concrete, or routinely cut off new shoots at ground level. Clumping types stay in tight clumps that slowly increase in diameter.
As they grow, bamboos store food and energy in roots and rhizomes. At the start of the growth cycle, the canes grow out of the ground rapidly to their maximum height. The leaves and canes produce food, which is stored in the rhizomes for the next growth cycle. Young bamboos are usually slow to establish, while older plants have more stored food and therefore grow more quickly.
Plant or divide bamboos in spring. Most enjoy full sun or partial shade. Bamboos tolerate a range of soil conditions as long as moisture is present, but they usually don’t like boggy or mucky soils. They are seldom bothered by pests. A carefully chosen bamboo is a beautiful addition to any garden. Low-growing types, such as pygmy bamboo (Pleioblastus spp.), are ideal as groundcovers or for erosion control. Small clumping bamboos, for example some of the species and cultivars of Fargesia, can serve as delicate accents; taller species, such as clumping Borinda boliana, make good screens or windbreaks. Some, like black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra), make excellent specimens for large tubs, both indoors and outdoors. Because of its rapid growth, bamboo can act as a “carbon sink,” which makes it a good candidate for “green gardening.” 
Five Beautiful Bamboos
Here’s a list of five excellent bamboos for home landscapes and their characteristics:
  • Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’ (hedge bamboo): Up to 20 feet tall; good for containers; clump-forming habit. Zones 8–10. 
  • Borinda boliana: Up to 30 feet tall; heat-tolerant, noninvasive timber bamboo; clump-forming habit. Zones 7–10. 
  • Fargesia dracocephala ‘Rufa’: 8 feet tall; vigorous, cold hardy, and wind tolerant; clump-forming habit. Zones 5–9. 
  • Phyllostachys nigra (black bamboo): Up to 30 feet tall; jet black canes with green foliage and a running growth habit. Zones 7–10. 
  • Pleioblastus viridistriatus (dwarf green-stripe bamboo): 3 to 4 feet tall; variegated foliage, running growth habit. Zones 5–10.