A large container of Phyllostachys nuda bamboo grows by my back porch, the wind fluttering through its delicate branches and diplomatically screening me from my neighbors. It is lovely and carefree, whispering a soothing magic of Zen mountain retreats through the heat of a late summer in Baltimore.
Only beginning to be truly appreciated in the West, bamboo has been revered for centuries in the Orient for its great loveliness, utility and strength. The magical clicking of a bamboo grove overhead is said to be one of the most peaceful sounds in the world.
As a versatile, renewable resource, bamboo provides beauty, food, shelter, construction materials and even clothing for millions of people around the world.
Moreover, this plant is extremely hardy, adaptable to most continental U.S. environments, requires almost no care, has virtually no known pests or diseases and comes in up to 4,000 varieties.
Bamboos are available in a size for every garden, ranging from delicate pleioblastus ground covers just a few inches high to the tropical 80-foot giants, 6 inches in diameter, widely used in building and construction in Southeast Asia and the Far East.
A relaxation of import restrictions in recent years has made a much larger selection of different kinds available to the home gardener.
Before this, only a few varieties of bamboo could be found at nurseries or in catalogs in this country. Often these also proved to be the most rampant spreaders and made gardeners wary of including them in the home landscape.
Happily, this situation can now be remedied. Whether you want a bamboo for sun or shade, tall or short, running or clumping, indoors or out, there is a variety that suits your needs.
The New England Bamboo Co., for example, lists more than 150 cultivars in its 2000 catalog. One could quite easily create a garden of nothing but bamboo, and some people have. These newly available varieties include many beautiful cultivars never before seen outside of the Orient. Most are elegantly suited to a wide number of habitats and landscaping situations here.
As an added bonus, a great number are evergreen in our climate. Others boast subtle and beautiful color variations, such as tortoise-shell effects, or striped culms, that are striking in the landscape.
One of the "most gorgeous new releases," according to Albert Adelman of Burt Associates Bamboo in Westford, Mass., is Phyllostachys vivax aureocaulis, a pale, light yellow timber bamboo (30 to 70 feet). "It was offered for the first time commercially this past year. It is hardy to 5 degrees below and makes for a really show-stopping landscape," says Adelman.
Other standout choices include:
Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Harbin' with variegated stems of green and gold
P. aurea 'Albovariegata' with white and green striped leaves which give it a silvery appearance
P. nigra 'Henon' which has powdery blue culms
Fargesia nitida, whose culms mature to deep purple.
There are three basic classes of bamboo that the gardener is likely to find in this country. Phyllostachys, the "running" bamboos; Fargesia (clumping bamboos); and mid-size Sasa bamboos (6 to 12 feet).
Serious collectors may decide to venture as well into some of the less widely distributed varieties. These include: Arundinaria (A. gigantea is native to the southern U.S.), Chimonobambusa (known as winter bamboo, because the culms begin their growth in the autumn and early winter) and Shibatae (shrubby and makes a good hedge). Some of these, however, require tropical temperatures to flourish and are not frost hardy.
If you contemplate growing bamboo, here are several facts to keep in mind.
Contrary to popular myth, bamboo will not cross water. 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 Sasas, although it will not halt them forever.
One of the best methods for controlling running bamboos is to maintain a simple 12- to 15-foot wide mowing strip around them.
Once the tender culms have begun to grow in the spring, just run over them with a lawnmower; they will then die below the surface and there will be no more bamboo in that area for the year. Alternatively, for small plantings, simply kick over errant culms as they emerge in the spring and your pruning for the year is completed.
Three-foot-deep containment barriers of concrete or heavy gauge plastic are often recommended, but Adelman cautions that even these are not foolproof unless maintained regularly. A low-tech method Adelman recommends to his customers is to dig an 8-inch deep trench around the grove and fill it with mulch. A couple of times in the spring, run a stick around the trench; where shoots have begun to cross it, just lop them off with garden shears.
And, of course, many bamboos -- even the Phyllostachys -- do well and are easily kept in large containers of 40 gallons or more.
On a culinary note, almost all varieties are edible. The Phyllostachys are preferred for this. The most tender and tasty are said to be P. nuda and P. dulcis.
Bamboos are available through mail-order catalogs and specialty nurseries. Some garden centers carry the most common cultivars, such as yellow groove bamboo, Phyllostachys aureosulcata. A good catalog describes its offerings in detail along with valuable advice on cultivation.
American Bamboo Society
750 Krumkill Road
Albany, N.Y. 12203-5976
www.bamboo.org / abs
666 Wagnon Road
Sebastopol, Calif. 95472
Burt Associates Bamboo
P.O. Box 719
3 Landmark Road
Westford, Mass. 01886
www.tiac.net / users / bamboo
New England Bamboo Co.
5 Granite St.
Rockport, Mass. 01966