Bamboo plants are the fastest-growing plants in the world and are actually grasses of the true grass or Poaceae family. There are almost 1,500 species of bamboo native to all continents except Europe and Antarctica. Bamboo is the main food source of the endangered giant panda, which is known to eat 25 species of bamboo in its native habitat in China. Several bamboo species are economically important, and many species are cultivated as ornamental species.
Bamboo is a perennial evergreen with long, tapering stems divided into sections, or nodes, and a thick underground rhizome. The largest species, of the genus Bambusa, can grow more than 100 feet high and up to 40 inches per hour. All bamboo has shiny, green leaves shaped like broad blades of grass. Some species are tree-like with thick culms, or trunks, and branching crowns, while others are creeping in nature. Bamboo species are divided into clumping (tropical) and running (temperate). Clumping species have a limited rhizome system and tend to form dense thickets that do not spread rapidly. Running species have extensive rhizomes and can spread rapidly and become invasive.
Range and Habitat
Bamboo species are found in Asia and Australia, Subsahara Africa and the Americas. They range from Sakhalin Island in southern Pacific Russia south to northern Chile. Many species grow in mixed tropical and temperate forests, but some form large groves and exclude almost all other plants.
Most bamboos prefer slightly acidic, well-drained soil with a pH of about 6.0. They require abundant water ands sunshine but do not thrive in waterlogged soil. Many species grow well in containers and can even be grown indoors as potted plants, provided they are regularly misted to maintain humidity. When choosing a bamboo species for your garden, consult a local gardening center. Choose clumping species instead of running ones unless you have a lot of space. Ornamental bamboo species rarely flower, but if they do the entire plant often dies afterwards.
There are a large number of bamboo species and cultivars available for cultivation in areas with minimum temperatures to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, such as the clumping giant timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii). It produces straight stems up to 50 feet high. The painted bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris) reaches 50 feet high and has very attractive gold and green striped canes. It is hardy to 27 degrees Fahrenheit. The cultivar of Bambusa vulgaris, called wamin, or the dwarf Buddha belly, has swollen stem nodes that resemble Buddha's stomach. It reaches 15 feet high and tolerates temperatures to 27 degrees Fahrenheit.
All parts of the bamboo plant have useful applications. The young shoots of species such as Phyllostachys edulis are eaten in Asia, and the timber of the large Bambusa bamboos are used for simple structures and even as scaffolding on skyscrapers in Hong Kong and China. Strips of bamboo stems are pressed into laminate flooring, and bamboo fibres are even used to make fabrics and paper. In Laos, sections of giant bamboo are used as cooking pots.