Heavenly bamboo is not a true bamboo, but is instead a member of the barberry family. This evergreen shrub’s common name is derived from its segmented stems, which look like bamboo canes. It can grow from 6-10 feet high, and up to five feet wide. The delicate leaves are pink when young, and deep green at maturity. If grown in full sun, the foliage turns an attractive shade of red in fall.
This pretty shrub is native to India and eastern Asia, where it has long been cultivated as an ornamental plant. It is widely planted today in China and Japan, where it is associated with good luck and longevity. Heavenly bamboo was first planted in the United States in the early 1800s, and is a commonly found in Japanese influenced gardens.
Like other members of the barberry family, heavenly bamboo is a host for wheat rust (Puccinia graminis), which can cause large scale grain crop failure. While the rust seldom kills this plant, it poses a serious threat to wheat and other cereal grains. It is prohibited to cultivate this plant or other barberry relatives in grain producing regions of the U.S. .and Canada. Heavenly bamboo is also a host for powdery mildew, and may spread this fungus to nearby plants. The bright red berries are known to be toxic to grazing animals and domestic cats.
Heavenly bamboo has naturalized over much of the U.S., and is considered a pest plant in many areas. If planted in groups, heavenly bamboo will produce clusters of red berries in fall, which remain on the plant throughout winter. The plant spreads easily by seeds, which are widely transported by birds, and by root shoots, which emerge from the base of the plant. Heavenly bamboo is a significant threat to native plants where it has escaped cultivation.
This attractive shrub is drought resistant, and hardy in urban conditions. If heavenly bamboo is planted singly, as a specimen, it rarely produces fruit, which minimizes the risk of spread by seeds. It can be confined in planters or paved areas to prevent its spread by root sprouts. The attractive seeds can also be pruned off the plant before maturity.
In Japan there are over 50 varieties of heavenly bamboo in cultivation. In the U.S., commonly available cultivars include ‘Harbor Dwarf’, which grows 2-3 feet high, and ‘Alba’, which grows 6 feet high and bears white berries.