Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bamboo - An Overview

Fargesia Nitida

I realized the other day that I was kind of getting ahead of myself on the bamboo thing, so today I think I'll do a more general post on bamboo.

According to one definition I read, bamboos are just tall or shrubby grasses with woody stems for structure. That pretty well says it all. There are bamboos that are hardy in quite cold climates, and many that are more tropical. Other than keeping them under control, they are easy plants to grow, needing no pruning or shaping other than removing old old or weak wood. Each stem lasts for a number of years and then you have - a fishing pole, or garden stakes or, use your imagination. Only the tallest and sturdiest make good stakes, but then again, they're free.

The one thing you notice after awhile is that bamboos don't have flowers. Actually they do, but they bloom rarely, some only every 50 or 100 years. When they do flower, the plants will die, but hopefully they will produce seed to re-do the patch. Their reproductive strategy of spreading by rhizomes is actually a more successful strategy, since baby plants from seed are far more vulnerable than large offsets from underground runners.

Bamboos are ancient plants and fossils have been found to date them at least 6.5 million years ago. DNA evidence suggests that bamboo or their relatives go back 26 million years.

Phyllostachys bissettii

Bamboos have been used in Chinese gardens since 2000 BCE and their cultivation was unique to that country for almost 3 millenia. By 1000 CE, the Japanese had started trading with China and took bamboo home to use in temple gardens and the homes of wealthy traders. The first bamboo introduction to the west was Phyllostachys nigra from Japan in 1827 after the American navy had negotiated a trade agreement.

The interior of China was not open for exploration until the middle of the 19th century at which time plant hunters invaded the mountains of China. Unfortunately, they were mostly attracted to the 'pretty faces' and pretty much ignored the bamboos. Two lesser known French collectors, M. Latour-Marliac (of waterlily fame) and Eugene Mazel were the ones responsible for the early bamboo acquisitions. In America, bamboos were valued more for the commercial production of timber, paper and edible shoots than for general gardening purposes.

Bamboo is native to parts of North and South America, Africa and Asia, but not to Europe. There are over a hundred genera and fifteen times that many species worldwide. Many more are likely left to be discovered and named. The majority come from the hot tropical areas but about 1/5 come from more temperate regions.

Pleioblastus viridistriatus

Tomorrow I'll write a bit about the botanical stuff, along with some more pictures.


No comments: