Bamboo has become a popular garden plant in many areas, used both for its exotic appearance and as a very effective privacy screen. With species that can grow 80 to 100 feet tall, bamboo is often thought of as a tree but it actually belongs to the poaceae family of grasses. Many practical uses for bamboo have developed in Asia where most varieties of this woody plant originate.
There are well over 1,000 species of bamboo worldwide, most of which are native to tropical climates. However many species originate in temperate zones with certain varieties being surprisingly cold hardy. In general bamboo plants are either runners or clumpers depending on their manner of growth. Gardeners have to be quite vigilant with runner type bamboo as their fast-growing rhizomes allow the plant to spread very quickly. Although bamboo trees are soft-stemmed and pliable when young, they become very woody and amazingly strong with age.
Most large species of bamboo originate in dense forests where acidic, organically rich soils are the norm. These varieties thrive in permeable, well-drained soils that allow roots to develop fully. Most bamboo grows well in shady areas that simulate the natural conditions beneath the forest canopy. As a landscape plant, bamboo benefits from heavy mulching and plenty of water when young. Mature plants tend to be quite drought-tolerant, usually needing additional water only during very dry conditions.
Bamboo is well known for its amazing rates of growth. The largest of these evergreens can grow over 3 feet per day and reach heights of well over 100 feet in short order. This certainly explains the popularity of bamboo as a plant for creating privacy screens in a hurry. However homeowners should think carefully when selecting varieties for the yard and choose a species that will fit it with existing landscape plants.
One of the biggest challenges for gardeners with runner type bamboo is controlling the spread of the plant. Runner bamboo shoots rhizomes out underground with surprising speed and it will quickly claim a large portion of any garden if left unchecked. Installing a root barrier is the most effective way to control the spread. Flexible polyethylene barriers can be installed so that rhizomes within a few feet of the surface are forced upward where they can be easily pruned off.
North American Species
Not many people realize that there are at least three species of bamboo native to North America including switch cane, river cane and the recently discovered hill cane of Appalachia. Professor Lynn Clark of Iowa State University is credited with the discovery, the 75th time that she has positively identified a new species of bamboo worldwide. All three varieties of North American bamboo originate in the eastern and southeastern United States.