Bamboos are members of the grass family – and to our mind they are the most elegant and versatile of grasses. There are over a thousand species, (with more being discovered all the time) and they range in size from dwarf varieties just 10 or 20 centimetres high – perfect for groundcover and rockeries – to towering giants 15 metres tall that create a monumental vertical accent in the landscape.
Gracious, Hard-Working, Noble Plants
No matter what their size, all are decorative, graceful plants. We cannot decide which we like better: their pointed, rustling leaves, made all the more exquisite by fine, parallel veins; or their decorative stems (or culms, to be exact) with raised joints and startling colours. Bamboos culms can be an intriguing selection of tones: pale honey, warm yellow, bright green, dark green, dusty blue, deep crimson, near-purple and sophisticated black. Many are striped and some are spotted!
What’s more, bamboos are evergreen, frost-resistant – and largely untroubled by pests and diseases. They can be grown as dramatic, solitary specimens, in combination with other plants, as groundcover or even as a hedge.
Bamboos are native to all the major continents, except for Europe, but most of those in cultivation come from Japan or China, where for centuries they have held an honoured place. In Chinese thinking, the bamboo symbolises longevity, durability and endurance, and is one of “The Four Gentlemen of the Garden”, along with the orchid, plum blossom and the chrysanthemum.
Runners and Clumpers
The “tree grasses” (as they were sometimes known) were sent back to Europe by Victorian collectors around the middle of the nineteenth century and some species have since become naturalised here. Perhaps it’s because of the enthusiastic spread of some of those clumps that bamboos have gained a reputation of being invasive. There is always a solution if this is a problem. Varieties with running rhizomes can be planted next to a path, at the edge of a lawn (where any roaming shoots can be mown down), in pots or surrounded by a rhizome barrier.
Yet many bamboos are not “runners” at all, instead they are well-behaved “clumpers”, increasing slowly into densely clustered clumps that inch out from the parent rhizome.
Bamboo has a multitude of uses other than horticultural. From the ripened canes come all manner of items including furniture, pipes, wind chimes, chop sticks and scaffolding, while the shoots of some varieties are edible. Meanwhile, the leaves can be fabricated into paper and even clothing, as one writer noted in 1896: “the labourers in the rice fields go about looking like animated haycocks in waterproof coats made of the dried leaves of Bamboo sewn together.”