Bamboo grows more popular Import: The greatest of grasses, long treasured in Asia, are beginning to make a hit in American landscapes.


In a recent story on bamboo, an incorrect number was given. The correct number for the New England Bamboo Company is (978)-546-3581. The Sun regrets the error.

Imagine a plant that can provide beauty, food, shelter, construction materials and even clothing. Imagine, moreover, that this plant is extremely hardy, adaptable, requires almost no care, has virtually no known pests or diseases and is available in up to 4,000 varieties.

Imagine bamboo. Just beginning to be truly appreciated in the West, bamboo has been revered for centuries in the Orient for its loveliness, utility and strength. The magical clicking of a bamboo grove is said to be one of the most peaceful sounds in the world.

Bamboo can range from a delicate ground cover just a few inches tall (pleioblastus) to towering 80-footers, 6 inches thick and sturdy enough to be used in building construction throughout Asia.

Until recently, however, only a few of the most common varieties of this greatest of grasses could be found at nurseries or in catalogs in this country. Too often, these varieties have also proved to be the most rampant spreaders and have made gardeners wary of planting them.

But relaxation of import restrictions has recently made a larger selection of bamboo available to the home gardener. These include many cultivars never seen before in the West, and they are elegantly suited to a number of habitats and landscaping situations. A great number of the cultivars are evergreen. Others boast subtle color variations or striped culms (stalks).

Whether you want a bamboo for sun or shade, tall or short, running or clumping, indoors or out, there is certain to exist an appropriate choice. For example, the New England Bamboo Company (508-546-3581) listed 95 cultivars in its 1997 catalog. One could easily create a garden of nothing but bamboo, and indeed some people have.

There are three basic classes of bamboo likely to be found in this country: Phyllostachys (the giant runners that can reach 25 to 50 feet in height), fargesia (clumping bamboos) and midsize sasa bamboos, some of which have already become naturalized in the Southern states, such as sasa veitchii.

If you contemplate growing bamboo, keep in mind that almost all varieties are edible. The phyllostachys are preferred for eating - the most tender and tasty are said to be phyllostachys nuda and phyllostachys dulcis.

This attribute can be used as a form of population control, and is to your advantage if you like Asian food. To harvest the shoots, look for the first new tips in early spring and, using a sharp knife, cut them off a few inches below the ground before they grow higher. The shoots must then be peeled and cooked in two changes of water to remove bitterness. They can then be used in recipes.

Bamboo will not grow across water, contrary to popular myth. In fact, although it likes a moist soil, it doesn't like to stand with its feet wet.

Less than ideal conditions will help slow the spreading tendencies of the running bamboos. Poor, rocky soil, for example, is a fine restraint to the spreading growth of the phyllostachys and sasa, although it will not halt them indefinitely. Only a 3-foot- deep containment barrier is likely to do that.

In a curious and slightly wistful footnote, remember that at specific intervals determined by variety, all bamboo flowers and then dies together - all of it, all over the world of that particular variety, at the same time. All future growth must come from seed.

This has not, of course, noticeably hurt world bamboo populations, and it takes place only at 30- to 125-year time spans, so rest easy. Fargesia in particular has recently flowered.

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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