Tiger Gardens

Bamboo shrouds gardens with Asian mystery.

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Tiger Gardens

Bamboo shrouds gardens with Asian mystery.

By Steve Werblow

Bamboo. Even the word itself is exotic, scented with hints of steam and jungle, flashing with images of stalking tigers and roly-poly pandas.

In truth, bamboo is all that and more. It’s a remarkably versatile grass, growing in petite mounds and towering thickets, providing beauty, food, and building material. The American Bamboo Society lists 490 species and varieties at bamboo.org. Some prefer tropical heat, while others thrive in temperate climates, making them great landscape plantings across much of the U.S. and parts of Canada.

Susanne Lucas says she has been enchanted with bamboo since she was a little girl, intrigued by a neighbor’s hedge near Washington, D.C.

The fascination hasn’t worn off. Asked what inspires her about bamboo, Lucas — now a horticultural consultant in Plymouth, Massachusetts — cites “the vast diversity around the world, its resilience, and its endless utilization.”

Lucas has become a global expert on bamboo. She is executive director of the World Bamboo Organization and president of the American Bamboo Society, and she literally wrote the book on bamboo. In an essay promoting the release of “Bamboo,” she points out that the world’s first books were likely written on bamboo paper.

Lucas notes that bamboo can be integrated into landscapes for aesthetics, privacy, windbreaks, erosion control, restoration of degraded lands, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, or for use as a lumber substitute. (Timber-type bamboos have higher compressive strength than concrete, and tensile strength equivalent to steel.)

It was towering, timber-type bamboos that sparked Thielsen Lebo’s passion for bamboo.

Thielsen Lebo turned his fascination with bamboo into a nursery business.

Thielsen Lebo turned his fascination with bamboo into a nursery business.

“When I was a kid, I used to build a lot of forts,” explains the youthful horticulturist, owner of LeBeau Bamboo Nursery in Medford, Oregon. “I heard bamboo grew really fast, so I planted some timber types and harvested them to build with.”

It’s hard to imagine a more exciting plant for a youngster. Timber-type bamboos can rocket to their full height of 70 feet in just a month, launching spears three inches in diameter. In the wild, some species grow as much as 1.5 inches per hour.

Hyperdrive. Lebo points out that bamboo’s hyperdrive growth habit is a survival strategy — an aggressive leap into the fight for sunlight.

“That’s how they compete in forests,” he says of the world’s largest grasses. “In just one year, they can go from the forest floor to canopy-high.”

Though bamboo timber can make a pretty handy play fort right from the start, professional builders typically harvest bamboo for structural use after several years of maturation, when fibers harden. Indigestible by termites, their remarkable strength-to-weight ratio makes bamboo fibers comparable to carbon fiber, but 100 times cheaper.

Lebo — still fascinated with timber-type bamboos — followed his interest and built a collection of more than 100 varieties, which he sells to landscapers and homeowners from his nursery and ships nationwide through lebeaubamboo.com, Amazon, eBay, and Etsy. Dramatic as they are, the towering timber types are not his top sellers.

“A lot of my customers live in apartments,” he says.

Fortunately, there is a bamboo for nearly any garden, from the ghostly white Fargesia scabrida to the ebony Phyllostachys nigra. There’s the fountain-like display of Borinda angustissima’s delicate leaves to Chusquea gigantea, a flexible native of South America that stands up well to snow.

Choose carefully. With so many choices available among bamboo species, it’s important to select varieties that suit your site and fit the amount of management you are willing to perform.

Lucas points out that bamboos need space, so make sure you are giving them room to clump or spread. Look at their adaptability to your climate zone — many bamboos do very well into USDA Zone 6, and some can survive in Zone 5 despite above-ground die-back some winters, she notes.

Irrigation requirements are another factor — some species are thirstier than others. Lebo adds that he’s seen problems with copper or arsenic in well water, which can be tough on some species.

The biggest decision — and the greatest potential for trouble with neighbors — is choosing whether to plant a running variety, which can spread rhizomes several feet per year, or a clumping variety with a root system that stays tightly confined.

Bamboo shoots sprout from root-like rhizomes —basically, like a huge crabgrass or bermudagrass stand. Some species’ rhizomes spread faster than others’ — a key reason to buy from an expert.

In fact, some invasive specimens aren’t actually bamboo at all, despite names like “Japanese bamboo,” which is actually a member of the notoriously noxious knotweed family. (That’s a sore spot among bamboo enthusiasts.) Bad experiences with unmanaged bamboo or bamboo-like species have led some states and towns to ban their planting.

Like its relatives crabgrass and Bermudagrass, bamboo spreads by sprouting shoots and roots from nodes on its rhizomes.

Like its relatives crabgrass and Bermudagrass, bamboo spreads by sprouting shoots and roots from nodes on its rhizomes.

Tight leash. Lucas says the bans are unnecessary and poorly written, but notes that running bamboos do indeed run. She says controlling bamboo’s spread isn’t hard, but it is important.

“Homeowners should take responsibility for their landscapes, just as they do their dogs,” she emphasizes. “Bamboos can be controlled.”

Lebo’s website, and many others, illustrate strategies for containing bamboo rhizomes.

“What’s lucky about bamboo is they grow only in the top two or three inches of the soil,” Lebo says. “The rhizomes are hard — you can feel them when you hit them with a shovel. You chop them and remove them in the fall, or leave them to rot.

“To be more secure, you can dig a ditch about two feet deep and line it with high-density polyethylene,” he adds. “The rhizome just circles around inside like it’s in an 8,000-gallon container.”

Worldwide bloom. If you are lucky, your bamboo might bloom while it is in your care. (It might be unlucky — some species die after flowering, so it’s good to buy from an expert who can guide your purchase decision.) It’s a rare event — decades can pass before a species blooms and goes to seed. Remarkably, every individual of a species, no matter where in the world it is growing, will suddenly bloom in the same year. Nobody knows why.

Lebo notes that global blooms help botanists connect related specimens, which is still an inexact science. Though man has studied bamboo for thousands of years, some of its mysteries endure.

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