I have worked for public and private, rich and poor, tycoons, princes, and starving artists in every sort of size and place.
And everyone wants bamboo. Which makes me wonder: what makes it so universally irresistable, and yet so difficult to use well in a garden? Perhaps the following observations will shed some light on the enigma of bamboo fascination.
Bamboo’s roots are called Rhizomes; the new growths are shoots; and the stems are culms. New culms appear every year, and live for about five years. Cutting them for paper, architecture, ornaments, tools, musical instruments, food, furniture, fabric, flooring and false teeth(!) does not affect the health of the rhizome.
Bamboo, like corn and palms, is a grass. The biggest species, at 100-plus feet, are the largest grasses on earth. Culms reach most of their mature size in one growing season; the majority of the growth occurs in a three-to-four week period, and mostly at night.
This means that culms may grow at about three inches per hour– fast enough to watch them in the moonlight.
Bamboo’s massive root systems provide support for the culms and nutrients for the leaves, a remarkable feat of architectural engineering and hydrology.
The legendary strength of the rhizomes adds an undercurrent of power to an otherwise delicate bamboo planting.
The fearful reputation of invasive bamboo that plagues unprepared gardeners is definitely justified. Bamboo can do considerable damage to foundations and drains. Combining the requirements to contain it with the fact that bamboo tends to look out of place within conventional gardens often relegates it to a perpetually segregated existence.
In both chinese and japanese culture, bamboo symbols represent strength of character. Bamboo is often planted around shinto shrines to ward off evil spirits. The arching canes of a bamboo grove resemble the awesome architecture of a cathedral.
The tensile strength of bamboo is greater than mild steel, and its compression strength is greater than concrete. Nevertheless, it knows its weaknesses. In cold regions, the leaves droop in the winter to shed ice and snow, which prevents a buildup that could break the culms.
The mysterious flowering habits of bamboo are still not understood. Why do some species wait for more than 100 years to flower all at once, then set massive amounts of seed and die? It certainly does add drama to the bamboo mystique, but more likely it is something very practical, like creating open, sunny places for new, more vigorous plants to grow.