Bamboo plants are both versatile and ecologically friendly. Most often associated with China and the Far East, bamboo can grow in a variety of climates. It thrives, however, in tropical environments, so is more prominent in southern China and its bordering countries; sub-Saharan Africa; and even South America and Australia. Yet bamboo will not be constrained by geography. It grows even in temperate zones of North America, and can also be raised successfully indoors anywhere, in defiance of the elements. Furthermore, bamboo plants come in countless varieties.

large bamboo trees in forest

What Is Bamboo and How Is It Used?

Bamboo plants constitute a subfamily—bambusoideae—of grasses that are perennial, i.e. they live for two years or longer. They are generally larger than other grasses, and are further differentiated by their wooden stems, canes and branches. Reaching up to 70 feet in height, they are high-maintenance plants when grown as ornamentals, and have a propensity to dominate their surroundings. The woody stem, or culm, of the bamboo plant is used in many cultures to fashion construction materials, cooking utensils, weapons and musical instruments. Plant fibers are now used to make textiles and fabrics. Shoots, of course, are a dietary staple for people, pandas and some breeds of mountain gorilla.

What Are the Principal Varieties of Bamboo?

Bamboo comes in 91 genera and over 1,200 species. Stripped down to essentials, there are basically two types of this grass—clumping and running.

Clumping bamboo is true to its name. Growing in large clusters, this kind is slower in spreading although its roots beneath the ground are enormous and can threaten adjacent plants if unattended. Running stems, on the other hand, spread rapidly underground with their stems—called rhizomes—extending up to 100 feet from the main plant. Between these two divisions, there are five subsets under which the myriad genera and species can fall.

  1. Hardy Clumping Bamboo – These include the fargesia genus, which weathers the cold well and thrive with ample shade. While they grow up to 16 feet in height, their rhizomes spread but a few inches each year, thus sparing neighboring plants their advances. The thamnocalamus genus likewise enjoys shade and endures wind very well. Native to Chile, the chusquea genus does well in the sun, but requires soil with optimal drainage and low-humidity climates.
  2. Timber bamboo can grow over 30 feet tall and its woody canes are used for, yes, timber.
  3. Mid-size running bamboo reaches heights between 20 and 30 feet, and is an excellent choice for privacy screens.
  4. Smaller running bamboo—the genera of which include pseudosasa, pleioblastus and indocalamus—contains more genera than the other groups. Sometimes called dwarf bamboo, these bamboo plants are low-growing, making for excellent ground cover and potted plants.
  5. Cold-sensitive clumping bamboos lack the climate endurance of their hardy cousins, doing best in hot, equatorial climes (or in hothouses). These are of the bambusa genus, and are not successfully grown where sub-freezing temperatures occur.


How to Grow Bamboo in Your Garden

  • Before raising bamboo plants, it is best to test the soil (perhaps through a county cooperative extension office) to determine its compatibility with the species. For most species, a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5 is optimal.
  • When planting, keep the top of the root ball slightly above the soil surface and allow for a hole double the root ball size. Return the soil to the hole, packing and watering generously to decrease the likelihood of air pockets.
  • After planting, avoid fertilizing for at least a year.

Pruning the bamboo canes is a subjective task, depending on the desire of the gardener for density. Older (five to seven years) and dead canes are commonly removed by cutting or sawing them off close to the soil surface. Blocking the spread of running bamboo requires a fiberglass root barrier entrenched between the plant and forbidden zones. After a trench is dug, the barrier installed and the soil filled in, the gardener should see to it that the barrier projects at least two inches above the soil.

bamboo branches


Bamboo plants are beautiful, versatile and ecological. Any garden can benefit from their presence. Key to reaping the rewards of bamboo, however, is aggressive management of plant growth. Without limits on root systems and pruning of the cane, what was meant to complement a garden can become a blight upon it.

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