Bamboo Botany   

A Greener Plant for a Brighter Future  

Bamboo is a type of grass, not a tree. Among the more than 1500 different species, many bamboos are fast-growing, often reaching up to one meter in 24 hours. While growing, they release 35% more oxygen than trees, making bamboo an excellent alternative to growing hardwood forests, playing a critical role in mitigating the effects of climate change while also growing a greener economy and restoring our planet’s health.

And, while it is true that the running varieties of bamboo can be aggressive, there is no reason to fear bamboo running amok in your garden. By adopting methods to routinely (and easily) monitor and control growth, we can responsibly enjoy the many benefits of bamboo.

Because they lack the ability to produce annually and spread viable seed (flowering and seed production may occur decades apart, and even then the seeds are short-lived), bamboos do not qualify as invasive species like that of English Ivy, Kudzu, or Scotch Broom in North America.

Bamboos have characteristics that set them apart from other grasses, though. Bamboo is segmented, having typically hollow woody stems which in turn sprout (or shoot) from underground stem portions known as rhizomes. They also have a highly complex branching and flowering system. 

Woody bamboos share characteristics with some herbaceous (non-woody) grasses, like their leaf blades that have a distinctive internal organization of the tissues (including “arm cells” and “fusoid cells” not found in other grasses) and which are basally narrowed to form a stalk-like connection with the leaf sheath or a “pseudo stalk.” 

Different species of the bambusoid grasses (both woody and herbaceous) are grouped into genera on the basis of similar characteristics, and further as subtribes and tribes. The various tribes then comprise the bamboo subfamily (Bambusoideae) of the Grass family.

How does it grow?

Some of the largest timber bamboo can grow over 30 m (98 ft) tall, and be as large as 250–300 mm (10–12 in) in diameter. However, the size range for mature bamboo is species-dependent, with the smallest bamboos reaching only several inches high at maturity.

Canes can grow to full height in approximately 3 months, and this is the maximum height it will reach for the life of the cane. The emergence and growth of a new cane occur with “shooting”.  A typical bamboo cane will live between 5 and 10 years, continually contributing photosynthetic energy back to the clump. As a grass, bamboo has no rings so it doesn’t grow outward like a tree. Rather than growing out, it grows up, emerging widely from its base and gradually tapering towards its tip.

The emergence and growth of a new cane occur with “shooting”. Canes grow to maximum height in approximately 3 months’ time, the height it reaches for the life of the cane. Once fully grown, it will live for between 5-10 years, contributing photosynthesis energy back to the clump.

Mature grove height and cane diameter may take 6 to 10 years for a midsize timber bamboo. Dwarf and shrub size bamboo may take 3 to 6 years. Maximum size is dependent on environmental conditions like access to water, nutrients, and best-practice management techniques like selective harvesting and optimal feeding.

Types of soil

Bamboo is tolerant of most soils but thrives in moist, well-drained soil in a sheltered, sunny spot. Bamboo will grow in poor soils, but not in constant wet, boggy, or extremely dry conditions. Bamboo prefers a loamy, slightly acidic soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. If you have heavy and/or clay-rich soil, mix in compost until the soil easily crumbles in your hand. For sandy soil, use compost to retain moisture and offer nutrients. Adding biochar can also help build soil and sequester nutrients for longer-term feeding and care.

Bamboo is tolerant of most soils but thrives in moist, well-drained soil in a sheltered, sunny spot. Bamboo will grow in poor soils, but not in constant wet, boggy, or extremely dry conditions. Bamboo prefers a loamy, slightly acidic soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. If you have heavy and/or clay-rich soil, mix in compost until the soil easily crumbles in your hand. For sandy soil, use compost to retain moisture and offer nutrients. Adding biochar can also help build soil and sequester nutrients for longer-term feeding and care.

How does it reproduce?

The underground root system of bamboo is called the rhizome network, and the above-ground bamboo stem is called the cane or “culm”. The amount of rhizome spread depends upon the species, time in the ground, actual growing conditions, and access to sun, soil, and water.

The cane has nodes and is usually hollow between the nodes, though some varieties have solid core canes. The node is located where the branches, buds, or shoots are found. A membrane spanning the inside walls creates a chamber for each node. Pop the chambers and you have a natural tube or pipe.

Rhizome categories

Rhizomes are the woody, cane-like roots of bamboo, with hairy, mini-roots that absorb water and nutrients.  

There are two main categories of rhizomes: monopodial and sympodial. Monopodial rhizomes grow horizontally, often at a surprising rate, thus earning them their nickname of ‘runners’. The rhizome buds develop either upward, generating a culm (or cane), or horizontally, with a new tract of the rhizomal net.

Monopodial bamboos (see image at right) generate an open clump with culms distant from each other and can be extensive (rather than invasive). They are usually found in temperate regions and include, for example, the genera Phyllostachys and Pleioblastus. Culms of these “running” varieties are often valued for their heartiness, strength, durability, and versatility in applications. 

Sympodial rhizomes (see image at left) are often shorter, offering culms of various widths and heights, and the culms above ground are close together in a compact clump, which expands evenly around its circumference. Their natural habitat is tropical regions (though temperature varieties are popular) and they are not extensive in their growth patterns. A common genus is Bambusa in tropical locales, while Fargesia species are popular in temperate locales.

Where does bamboo grow?

Bamboos can be cultivated and also grow wild in the forest. The distribution of bamboos about the planet generally falls within the range of 46 degrees north and 47 degrees south latitude and to elevations of 4000 meters (Soderstrom & Calderon, 1979), forming a “bamboo belt” that circuitously touches multiple continents, countries, and cultures. The following charts outline species distributed across countries of the Asia Pacific Region, Africa, and the Americas. Note that this distribution continues to evolve and so data may vary.

In the US, especially in the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest, like elsewhere in the world, bamboo can thrive and be planted throughout the year. It can acclimate readily, except during severe freezing temperatures. Protection against strong, cold winds and low temperatures should be provided to young, vulnerable bamboo.

Bambusa vulgaris, as its Latin name implies, is the “common bamboo”, likely originated in Southeast Asia and is now pan-tropical, commonly planted as an ornamental and for household uses in many towns and villages. Some bamboos do in fact border on being weedy, but it is not accurate to paint the entire subtribe with that one brushstroke.

Some species are rare because their distribution is restricted to isolated localities, such as mountain peaks or specialized substrates, including limestone hills or swamps. Such places are “ecological islands”, having very different conditions from the surrounding landscape, which engender the establishment of unique or specially adapted species. 

Some bamboo species can be possibly endangered. For example, in Peninsular Malaysia, the clambering small bamboo, Schizostachyum terminale, was once more common, growing in seasonally inundated sites along slow-moving streams and within mosaics of freshwater and peat swamps. It is now no longer seen or easily found in Peninsular Malaysia’s west coast, which has undergone tremendous changes in natural landscape during development that has spanned more than a century.

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