Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension    P. O. Box 68    LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068    Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Bamboo - Symbol of Strength and Flexibility

Bamboo is a diverse group of plants with over 1,200 species ranging in size from miniatures to towering giants of over 150 feet.  Bamboo is cosmopolitan in origin and is among the most ancient plants in the grass family (Poaceae). Most bamboo is not native to the tropics.  One of the largest collections in the United States is in Washington DC and many varieties can be found growing in high Asian valleys nestled among snow covered mountains.  The diversity makes bamboo adaptable to many environments.  Bamboo tolerates extremes of precipitation, from 30-250 inches of annual rainfall.

Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on this planet and is most often compared with similarly upright growing trees because of its rigid woody stems that are called culms. Some species of bamboo grow one third faster than the fastest growing tree species, with the culms of some species growing over 3 feet per day. It is not surprising that with this speed of growth and the ability to harvest within 3-5 years (versus 10-20 for most softwoods) that bamboo has become a staple for many cultures and economies. Bamboo and its related industries already provide income, food and housing to over 2.2 billion people worldwide.  It provides food, medicinal ingredients, timber for structures, fences, poles and artistic endeavors, thatch for roofs and basketry and landscape beauty..

Bamboo can be an exquisite component of landscape design, having both visual appeal and practical uses in the garden. Bamboo provides great beauty and it also has utilitarian values such as supplying shade or a windbreak for dwellings or other plantings, and providing acoustical or visual barrier. Due to the diversity of bamboo it is possible to find a plant for nearly any situation; mass plantings in full sun or shade, as a forest component, as a specimen, or as a container plant.  Size ranges from dainty miniatures to towering tree-like varieties whose culms may reach 60 meters.

A large part of bamboo's aesthetic appeal is due to it's extreme diversity.  Bamboo stalks may come in a wide range of shades of beige, yellow, orange, gold black or green.  They can be smooth or textured, plain or striped or spattered with blotches of contrasting colors.

Before planting bamboo, gardeners should be aware of some of the responsibilities and garden chores that cultivating bamboo may bring. Like most grasses,  these plants can grow rapidly and many species spread by underground rhizomes.  Bamboo gardeners should be good neighbors and accept the responsibility not to allow their plants to recklessly wander off into the neighbors yard.  Barriers for these rhizomes can be created with concrete or metal or vinyl sheeting and is best done prior to planting out the bamboo. There is not much care required to maintain bamboo plants but they can create dense clumps that look more appealing if they are thinned occasionally and as individual canes live for several years and then die off, these canes will need to be cut out.

Although bamboo is evergreen in our environment, when bamboo sheds its leaflets,  usually in the dry winter months , it sheds thousands of fine little leaves.  This can create problems if planted too close to pools or other areas where the leaves may accumulate and become unsightly.  Generally on lawns and around groundcovers,  these leaves filter in to the grass or plants and cause no major problems.

When planting bamboo one should have some patience as plants grow quickly only once they establish their root system - this period can be as short as one year to as long as five years for the larger timber bamboo. The spread and growth rate of bamboo is directly proportional to irrigation and fertilizer applications; faster growth is attained with frequent watering and monthly applications of a high nitrogen fertilizer and to slow growth reduce both water and fertilizer.

Bamboo flowers infrequently but when it occurs the plant may expire or become weakened and sickly. This phenomenon has plagued cultures that rely on bamboo for centuries. For gardeners it is a nuisance and is complicated by our lack of knowledge about when a given species will flower and whether or not all plants of a clone of that species will flower at the same time. In some cases flowering has been beneficial to horticulture. This was the case with several species of Mexican bamboo that, until they flowered and set seed from which to grow new plants, were relatively scarce in the nursery trade. If your bamboo begins to flower it does not mean its demise is near or even eminent ; several species of bamboo can flower for many years and other species do not perish after flowering.

Bamboo has for centuries been used in Vedic and Chinese medicine. The powdered hardened secretion from bamboo has been used internally to treat asthma, coughs and is said to be an aphrodisiac. In China, ingredients from the root of the black bamboo help treat kidney disease. Roots and leaves have also been used to treat venereal disease and cancer. The sap is said to reduce fever and ash will cure prickly heat. Current research point to bamboo's potential in a number of medicinal uses.

Integrally involved in Asian culture and the arts over centuries, bamboo is a mystical plant that is a symbol of strength, flexibility, tenacity, endurance and compromise.  Judicious use and placement of bamboo can lend an exotic oriental atmosphere to a landscape design.  Good luck and good gardening.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or  863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an Equal Employment Opportunity - Affirmative Action Employer authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap or national origin.

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