The bamboo plant is a perennial grass that belongs to the genus Poaceae. The plant is noted for its jointed, woody stem and large growth. Bamboos span from 1-foot dwarf to 60-foot giant varieties. Over 1,500 species exist worldwide. Of those, 100 species achieve economic importance as utilitarian materials in southeast Asia and China and as ornamental plants in the United States.
The bamboo plant adds visual appeal to outdoor spaces, but some varieties spread aggressively and become difficult to manage.
The bamboo plant enjoyed popularity as a garden specimen in China and Japan long before it gained acceptance in the West. In the 1800s, modern Western gardeners used bamboo to show their contemporaries that exotic species could fit in English planting schemes. In the Victorian era, affluent gardeners sought the bamboo plant as a garden novelty.
In 1891, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens-Kew, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, designed the United Kingdom's largest collection of bamboo varieties at the Bamboo Garden. In the U.S., native bamboo groves ranged from Florida to Texas and as far north as the Ohio River valley.
The documented history remains incomplete, but bamboos may have been introduced by G.H. Todd of Alabama in 1822 or Spanish colonists in Florida in the 1840s. The United States Department of Agriculture began to introduce hundreds of non-native plants to the U.S. so bamboo would become a commercially viable crop, but the organization abandoned the effort in 1975. Bamboo saw a recent resurgence as an ornamental plant.
Bamboo serves commercial, domestic, landscape and conservation purposes. Bamboo shoots are edible foods and the foliage serves as fodder for some animals. Bamboo canes are strong and durable. They function as construction materials such as concrete reinforcements and scaffolding in countries where the plant grows wild.
Products derived from native U.S. bamboo include arts and crafts, fishing poles, flooring, furniture and musical instruments. Domestic uses range from trellises to fencing. The bamboo plant works in gardens as ornamental specimens, living screens and as landscaping in botanical gardens and zoos. The bamboo plant also benefits conservation efforts as constructed wetlands and wildlife habitat.
The bamboo plant takes two forms: clumping (pachymorph) and running (leptomorph). Clumping bamboo grows in large clusters and spreads 1 inch in diameter per year through underground energy-storing stems called rhizomes. Clumping types come from sub-tropical regions. They are not cold-hardy, or able to withstand freezing temperatures so they have limited growth in the U.S. The only exception is Panda Bamboo, which can survive -25 degrees Fahrenheit.
The running bamboo plant can double in a year. The rhizomes spread up to 5 feet per year. Running types grow in temperate regions. They are hardy in parts of the South, southwest and Pacific Coast and root hardy in Northern regions, meaning the plant dies back in winter and re-grows in spring.
Non-native running bamboos take over landscapes if left to grow unchecked, but root barriers, mowing and herbicides help control the spread, according to the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information Center.
A strong metal, plastic, rubber or wood barrier restricts the growth of bamboo rhizomes. Install the barrier in a 24- to 36-inch-deep trench. Effective barriers protrude 2 to 4 inches above the soil and cover the anticipated spread of the bamboo plant. The rhizomes eventually sneak around the root barrier, but repeated mowing will deplete the rhizome of energy as the plant struggles to grow back.
Mow the escaping rhizomes with the same frequency as grass cutting. Apply a non-selective herbicide that contains the weedkiller Glyphosate. Gaining control of a running bamboo plant takes two to three seasons.
Some bamboos do not flower, while others demonstrate partial or complete flowering each year or once every 100 years depending on the type of plant. When a bamboo plant flowers, food production tapers as the energy stored in rhizomes goes toward flower initiation. A partially flowering plant usually survives a flowering period because it only produces blooms on a portion of the plant and taps less of the plant's energy.
A completely flowering plant typically dies or suffers setback because it produces blooms on every stem and depletes most of the plant's energy.