Bamboo is a mysterious and elusive plant that baffles taxonomists who try to contain it within a botanical class and gardeners who try to contain it within a limited garden space as they learn how to grow bamboo. For many years, bamboo was thought to be a primitive grass but recent DNA testing has shown it to be one of the most highly evolved forest grasses. There are over 1200 forms of bamboo that grow in a broad spectrum of color including the familiar green and gold as well as burgundy, blue and even black grasses. Some varieties of bamboo can grow up to a foot a day and ultimately reach 130 feet tall while the smallest bamboo cultivar attains only six inches of growth.
The first step in learning how to grow bamboo is picking a cultivar and beginning to unravel its many mysteries. While most of us picture tall stands of green and golden canes growing in tropical bamboo forests, bamboo cultivars range from the temperate to the tropical. As well as diversity in cultivar, bamboo has over 1500 documented uses that range from use in construction to the making of acupuncture needles and from agricultural fodder to the making of musical instruments. Until they are cut, bamboos stems are properly called culms and not canes. In India bamboo plants are commonly called the “Wood of the poor” and in China the” friend of the people”. To add to the confusion, a cultivar commonly sold as “lucky bamboo” isn’t bamboo at all but a type of lily from the Dracaena family!
Unluckily for bamboo, it has the reputation for being an invasive plant, growing from running rhizomes. Although this is true for some cultivars, the most cold-hardy plants don’t run at all, but grow from well-behaved clumps with well-established root systems. One thing that bamboo cultivars do have in common is that they are perennial plants. As noted above, some bamboos varieties are temperate and some are tropical. Because its diversity, it’s easy to find a suitable cultivar when you want to learn how to grow bamboo. Bamboo cultivars range from those that grow indoors to outdoors, in a garden or in a container, in bright light or shade.
Two considerations in knowing how to grow bamboo successfully are water and air. All true bamboos are grasses and won’t grow in saturated soils. They also need air circulation to thrive. In fact, some bamboo growers raise the pots of their small cultivars on chopsticks to provide air circulation under the plant as well as around it. Large pots are often elevated with heavy dowels.
The bamboo is a symbol of long life, strength and versatility for many cultures of the world. Unraveling its mysteries is a continuing source of enjoyment. When you know how to grow bamboo, you’ll find that your love for the plant grows as fast as your bamboo does!