Though Bamboo grows in huge groves, have hard woody stems and grow as tall as trees, the tallest reaching 60 feet high, they are technically only giant grasses. You’d need a heck of a lawn mower for these babies if you were thinking of exchanging it for your Kentucky Blue. But, no, Bamboo is more like your average Miscanthus Ornamental Grass only on steroids.
There are two basic types of Bamboo the running type and the clump forming. It is the running type which has the nasty reputation of being an invasive plant because of their tenacious rhizomes which creep just below the surface and pop up to extend the colony far and wide in all directions from the main plant. In most parts of the world where Bamboo grows naturally, this is considered a good thing as the hard woody stems called Culms have a zillion uses. Bamboo is used in making decorative water features for Japanese gardens, for staking plants, making furniture, fencing, tools, musical instruments, wind chimes and even building homes.
And let us not forget the Giant Pandas rely solely on Bamboo for food therefore it is a good thing it grows so quickly. Being a nutrient poor plant, however, it’s indeed a miracle Pandas are not already extinct just eating Bamboo. Unlike what some would say about humans being the bane of all life on Earth, Pandas being brought to zoos and given a better diet has saved them from that fate and allowed us to admire the Bamboo as something other than just food for Pandas.
As for the clump forming Bamboo, they are much more tamed and tamable for the home garden but they are mostly tropical and subtropical and extremely hard to come by at your average garden center.
Some form of Bamboo grows wild in every temperate and tropical region of the world but the ambitious gardeners to the north have been known to grow it within heated greenhouses or in the home and bringing it outside during summer. Bamboo in general doesn’t particularly like this treatment but who’s going to tell that to the rabid Bamboo lover? The hardiest Bamboo, Rargesia Murielae (6-15 feet tall, clump and very rare), is hardy to zone 5 as is “Yellow Grove Bamboo” (12-25 feet tall, running). The roots if mulched well may survive a zone colder or could be moved indoors for wintering over.
Bamboo is divided into four groups for determining its use in the landscape. In Group I, we have the dwarf cultivars and ground covers used in small clumps, for erosion control, for borders and in rock gardens. These include the cultivars Pleioblastus Argenteostrata, P. Chino Vaginata Variegata, both of which grow 2-4 feet tall, are hardy to zone 8 and have white stripes on their leaves. P. Distichus, commonly called Dwarf Fernleaf Bamboo (zone 8), and P. Variegata, the Dwarf Whitestripe Bamboo (zone 6), both grow 1-3 feet high. All of these are running types and should be cut back regularly to keep them looking their best.
Group II Bamboos are mostly clump forming and have a fountain or V shape to them. They are most useful in the landscape as sound barriers, windbreaks, hedges, single specimens and to screen unsightly views. They take about as much room as any large shrub and when clipped can be kept neat and in check. Some of the more notable varieties are Narihira Bamboo (Semiarundinaria Fastuosa) growing 8-25 feet high if not curbed. This is technically a running type but this cultivar is slow to spread and easily contained. Another in this group Bambusa Multiplex “Alphonse Karr” (8-35 feet), is a very pretty, dense growing Bamboo with green and yellow striped culms. Bambusa Multiplex “Golden Goddess” (6-10 feet high) with golden stems a half inch in diameter is good for containers. B.M. Riviereorum “Chinese Goddess” (4-8 feet) has small lacy leaves with arching culms. All of these are hardy to zone 8.
Group III is the taller, running Bamboos used primarily as tall screens and hedges or as a single specimen if confined. New growth on Chimonobambusa Marmorea “Marbled Bamboo”(2-6 feet, zone 9, running) is cream and purple but older culm look nearly black. Excellent of hedges if curbed. Arundinaria Amabilis “Teastick Bamboo” (20-50 feet, zone 8, running) has thick walled culms 2 and a half inches in diameter quite useful for wood. Phyllostachys Nigra “Black Bamboo” (4-15 feet, zone 7, running) has new growth coming in green but the second year they turn black. They prefer semi-shade in hot summer areas.
Group IV as you may guess are the truly giant Bamboos. A walk though a grove of these Bamboo sounds like nothing else in the world. Bambusa Beecheyana (12-40 feet, zone 8, clumping, 4-5 inch diameter culms) has an attractive tropical look but is very hard to find. Bambusa Oldhammii “Giant Timber Bamboo” grows 15-55 feet high with 4 inch diameter culms up to zone 8. Bambusa Ventricosa “Buddha’s Belly Bamboo” (3-30 feet high, zone 9, clump) grows swollen culms if confined in tubs or where soil is of poor quality and dry.
The good thing about Bamboo is how easy it is to keep them in check if you know the tricks. No, you don’t need a Giant Panda to help with that. Bamboo grows to its highest limits if given ample moisture, provided with fertilizer and allowed to ramble. They also are a bit of a contradiction as they like moisture but won’t grow in water and while they can be rather drought tolerant their rhizomes won’t spread into dry soil. As any good gardener knows we are the ones in control and we can deprive Bamboos of all the things they so like. Knowing this we can keep them to the lower heights of their range. Growing in tubs, in sandy, poor soil and deprived of a bit of water and fertilizer and you can have Bamboo growing somewhere near you even if you have to bring it in for the winter. Worth a try. Bamboo is exquisite.