A World of Bamboo
Part of the confusion is the very nature of flowering in bamboo. The phenomenon is a little understood event, resulting in much confusion and a few myths that are often repeated. Admittedly, in a botanical world classified by flower, it is hard to study a species that flowers only every 30 to 60 years. In some bamboos, the cycles are even longer, with 120-year intervals between flowering. Because of this, information concerning flowering habits and cycle length is hard to find and equally difficult to gather into usable form.
One of the myths that should be addressed concerns bamboo flowering. This myth states that when a species of bamboo flowers, all the same species of bamboo all over the world flowers. Given the irregular nature of botany, this myth seems impossible; how could a plant be so organized? So, although many plants through the world (especially offspring) might flower, it is unlikely that all will flower at once.
A second, related myth suggests that after any bamboo flowers, it immediately dies. This is true in some cases, but is not always so. Many bamboo species can flower, and produce seed, with little detriment to the vegetative growth. Isolated areas of river cane along the White River in Northwest Arkansas have been flowering for the past few years. A few shoots are flowering here and there, but most of the grove is unaffected.
On the other hand, a massive flowering and grove dieback, known as gregarious flowering, is not unusual. One theory offered by David Jansen suggests that a long interval and gregarious flowering is a survival technique. The seeds, which are a delicacy to rodents, must be produced to a saturation point. Only by devoting a grove’s entire resources to producing seed will there be enough for foraging animals and to establish a new grove. This can result in the parent bamboo dying off, its energy spent on making as much seed as possible.
The growth of bamboo through a season occurs in several stages. Sometime between March and May, depending on the species and Mother Nature, the first growth starts with new culms emerging from the ground. This is called shooting, as in shooting up, an appropriate term for this burst of energy. A few years ago, we measured the growth of a new shoot of yellow groove bamboo: 13 inches in 24 hours.
During the next four to six weeks, a developing cane will be sprouting branches and leaves. This maturing will take place through the summer, providing food for the bamboo. Through the summer and fall the plant is also increasing its size underground. The rhizomes are actively seeking new turf, preparing for the next season’s shooting.
In spite of its reputation as a fast grower, a new planting will take a while to become established. The Sleep, Creep, Leap Rule applies in this situation. The first year the bamboo is said to Sleep. The second year it is busy sending out new growth underground, thus, the Creep. The third season is the Leap - bamboo growing where there was no bamboo before. Often, however, this three-year wait is condensed into a single season. Bamboo surprises are one of the many joys of spring.