Bamboo for You

bamboo forest

Q:  What is the scariest plant?

A:  BamBOO

I know, it’s a corny joke, but what would you say about a plant that can grow as much as three feet in one day (or one inch every forty minutes)? Or culms (bamboo stalks) that grow a hundred feet tall and eight inches in diameter in one season, in as little as three months’ time? If bamboo, the world’s fastest growing plant, is not in the realm of scary, it would certainly qualify for the bizarre. People who live in tropical regions with native bamboo stands say they can literally hear the bamboo grow as it pushes through layers of vegetation on its way up.

But then bamboo also has an amazing self-maintenance regime that depends on fungi that slowly begin to consume its culms not long after they mature. It takes culms three years to fully harden if you intend to harvest them. Once another few years go by, fungi can already be at work so the window for harvest is rather brief. In the Far East, bamboo, with the tensile strength of steel, is the staple construction material in certain rural areas, used in building everything from houses to bridges.

Mexican weeping bamboo

You can bring bamboo into your garden where a property barrier or screen is desired. Clumping bamboos, as opposed to the running types, are the ones you want to select. Any Phyllostachys species, whether golden or black bamboo, should be avoided. Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ssp. aztectorum) lacks an even growth habit but it can be kept in bounds through pruning. Giant timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) grows in its habitat up to 65 feet tall but I have never seen it grow more than half that size locally. Dwarf bamboo (Pleioblastus and Sasa species), recommended for erosion control, will grow up to four feet tall but may be kept lower through pruning.

dwarf variegated bamboo

You may see a stand of dwarf bamboo, along with tall bamboo types, growing in the Japanese garden located at the south end of Woodley Park in Van Nuys, adjacent to the Tillman water reclamation facility, on Woodley Avenue just north of Burbank Boulevard. For visiting hours and tours, go to

dwarf heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica ‘Compacta’)

Heavenly bamboo certainly has its virtues, although it is not a true bamboo. Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) belongs to the barberry family which, most notably, includes Oregon grape and other spiny Mahonias, many of which are California natives, as well as Berberis species, which are tough and thorny yet highly attractive ornamental shrubs. Barberries are known for their colorful foliage:  Japanese barberry in burgundy, select mahonias in greyish blue to bluish green, and the kaleidoscopic heavenly bamboo. Typically, barberries take on additional bronze or red pigmentation in the fall. Heavenly bamboo, Mahonias, and Japanese barberries come in many configurations, with all three groups represented by robust shrubs reaching a height of five feet or more, more compact or sub-shrubs of two or three feet, and ground covers that stay under a foot tall. Heavenly bamboo derives its common name from the fact that it has a growth habit resembling that of clumping bamboo species. I am especially enamored with thread leaf heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica ‘Filamentosa’), whose ultra-thin foliage provides a fresh and airy respite among the more ostentatious leaves of typical garden fare.

lucky bamboo, courtesy of University of Missouri

Tip of the Week: Lucky bamboo, growing only in water or pebbles, is tirelessly displayed in drug stores, supermarkets, and home improvement centers. It is a favorite among Feng Shui devotees, who claim that having it around brings joy and riches. The stems and leaves of this plant definitely resemble bamboo, but it is only a resemblance. Lucky bamboo’s true name is Dracaena sanderiana and it belongs to the asparagus family.

The twisting formations that you see on lucky bamboo are the result of covering the plants as they grow so that their stem tips stretch for the light. Lucky bamboo is easy to propagate. You can take sections as small as a few inches in size and place them in a cup of water. Make sure each stem piece to be propagated has at least one node, which is the junction where leaf meets stem. Roots should start to grow within a few weeks. Lucky bamboo should not be placed in direct light or a dark corner. Indirect light suits it perfectly. If leaves should start to turn yellow or burn at the tips, this is a sign that it is getting too much light or fertilizer. Give it a few drops of liquid plant food every month or two and change the water every two weeks. Once roots start to form you can, of course, pot your plants in soil.  Because of lucky bamboo’s sensitivity to chlorine and fluoride, it should ideally be given distilled water. Chlorine will volatilize (evaporate) from tap water that is left out overnight but fluoride will not.

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