A World of Bamboo
There are over 1,200 species of bamboo in the world. They include dwarf types that grow less than one foot tall to tropical giants that can achieve heights of over one hundred feet. Bamboo is distributed throughout the world in tropical, sub-tropical and temperate regions.
Bamboo is really just an overgrown grass, but with several unique characteristics. Their stems, known as culms, are rich in protein and silica, resulting in a strong material suitable for building. Before breaking ground, a new bamboo is a tender edible, an important food source in Asia and a delicacy when freshly harvested. After emerging from the ground, a new culm literally shoots up, capable of growing up to four feet in a single day. This giant grass establishes clumps or groves quickly, creating a sustainable, harvestable crop in as little as five to ten years.
Hardy bamboo is a generic term used to describe those species that can withstand freezing temperatures. There are over 200 cold hardy species now available in the United States, most of which originated in China or Japan. The bamboo that is most familiar to us is the river cane, Arundinaria gigantea, which is common throughout the Southeast. The river cane, and one sub-specie, is the only bamboo indigenous to the United States.
There are two types of hardy bamboo, commonly referred to as running or clumping. Most hardy bamboos spread by fast growing underground rhizomes so are known as running bamboo. A thick mat of interwoven rhizomes common on a mature plant makes bamboo useful for stabilizing soils and controlling erosion. This root system is extremely tough, enabling a well-established grove to be drought-resistant and tolerant of extreme winters.
Clumping bamboos form a cluster of culms so are known for their non-invasive behavior. Most of the clumpers are mountain bamboos and are especially winter hardy. Fargesia species are the principle food for the Giant Panda in its native habitat. They are slow growing, with a graceful arching habit. They tend to be sensitive to hot summers so only a few species are appropriate in Arkansas.
Hardy running bamboos can be roughly divided into three groups, based on the mature height of a plant. Many species in the Pleioblastus and Sasaella genera range in size between one and six feet tall and can be considered dwarfs. Most prefer a shady site and can tolerate drought conditions.
Sasa, Arundinaria and Pseudosasa are medium-sized bamboo with heights between six and twenty feet. The Sasas are attractive Japanese bamboos known for their large leaves.
The tallest group is referred to as timber bamboo and includes Semiarundinaria and Phyllostachys species. Mostly indigenous to China, they can range in height from twenty to over seventy feet tall. Established groves, tall roadside hedges and large specimen plants are typically a variety of Phyllostachys.
The introduction of bamboo into the United States started over a century ago. A few avid collectors were tireless in their efforts to identify, import, and established bamboo in America. USDA introduction stations in Georgia, Louisiana, and California are living monuments to their work.
Today, members of the American Bamboo Society continue to study, identify, and collect new and rare varieties. Society chapters and members maintain five regional quarantine greenhouses to observe new imports and comply with USDA requirements. All new bamboo imports must be quarantined for one year before release. Even so, dozens of new varieties have been introduced since the Society formed twenty years ago.
The popularity of bamboo is currently on the rise in the United States. More information is appearing in the media and plants are now available at larger nurseries and garden centers. Many landscapers and gardeners are considering its use in the landscape.
Unfortunately, the increase in interest and availability has not helped to curtail the common myths and misinformation concerning bamboo. Recent articles on the topic repeat old misconceptions, adding confusion to an already little understood plant.
There are several reasons for this misunderstanding concerning bamboo. There is little cultural data currently available. Existing compilations of bamboo heights and hardiness usually cite facts gathered from bamboo grown in optimal conditions. Since bamboo performs quite differently in colder areas, one has to grow and observe a species to collect regional data.