A Passion for Plants: The tallest grass in the world


Bamboo. Do you love it or hate it? If you don’t think you like bamboo, let me try to change your mind. To start with, bamboo is a collective common name for hundreds (thousands?) of different plants (technically grasses). Bamboo can be less than a foot tall (at maturity) to more than 100 feet tall. The stems can be golden, black, striped or bulbous, the leaves can be from an inch long to 2 feet long, green, striped or edged in yellow or white.

In other parts of the world, bamboo is used for building and scaffolding, bridges and fences. In this country you can find bamboo furniture, fishing rods, plant stakes, clothing and even weapons.

But all that is what can be done after harvesting bamboo, and we’re more interested in the ones that are still growing.

First, it’s important to know there are two general types of bamboo, running and clumping. The names say it all. Clumping bamboo tends to stay where you plant it. The clump will enlarge a little bit every year, but is polite and willing to obey boundaries.

Running bamboo is the type that, when planted in the wrong spot, can become a problem. Bamboo rhizomes can travel underground for as many as 5 feet from the original plant before sending new shoots skyward. The rhizomes can go under and around many shallow barriers and suddenly appear in a totally unexpected and unfortunate location.

Control depends on knowledge. It is possible to control a running bamboo by simply cutting the young rhizomes with a spade plunged straight down into the soil and following up with breaking off any young shoots that arise from the severed roots.

I admire the simple beauty of golden bamboo, and love black bamboo for the contrast between black stems and green leaves. These are two of the most familiar running bamboos. Indocalamus tessellatus is much less common, but is one of the drama queens of the bamboo world with the largest leaves of all, reaching almost 2 feet long.

Contrast that with Pleioblastus pygmaeus, a dwarf runner. This bamboo has tiny leaves and a short stature. It is such an aggressive grower that it can be used to stabilize slopes and for erosion control. Uncontrolled height can be a rangy 18 inches tall, but occasional mowing will keep it compact and very tidy in appearance.

In general, clumping bamboo comes from the more temperate parts of the world, and some are quite tropical. The hardier varieties are worth the search, not only because of their obliging habit, but also for their beauty. Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata aztectorum) is a lovely thing, with narrow, delicate leaves and a graceful, weeping habit.

Most bamboo grow best in rich, moist soil with regular water when first planted. Some will tolerate considerable drought after they are well established. Many prefer shade to full sun.

The Bamboo Garden at Foothill College has some 70 varieties planted in the ground, it’s a great place to view established plantings.

Nancy Schramm is the third generation owner of Carman’s Nursery. She and her husband have lived in Gilroy for more than 30 years. Contact her at 408.847.2313 or visit carmansnursery.com.


Previous articleEthereal plains
Next articleStanding room only