Many times, when confronted with creating a plant screen for a homeowner in a tightly spaced tract where the two story homes are stacked nearly one on top of the other, I have had to explain the rules: Usually, the higher a plant grows, the wider it will expand outwardly from its base or trunk.
Pruning can be effective with some trees and shrubs, but in a tight side yard, plants pruned tightly will often leave holes or openings in the hedge and ruin the effect of the screen.
This is where I like to recommend using a delicate or small-stemmed bamboo. But the first response I usually get from most people is fear, shock and loathing. “Oh no, you can’t be serious about bamboo, are you?” Or, “No way man, what are you talking about? We hate bamboo, it ruined our yard.” This is when I have to take a very scholarly and psychiatric stance to calm them down. “Well,” I say. “Did you know that there are over 1,000 types of bamboo?”
“Many are almost 100 feet tall and some will even climb in bed and attack you at night,” I say with a smile. Others have delicate small trunks no bigger than a half-inch wide with beautiful golden leaves that grow no higher than 12 to 14 feet in height and move quietly in the breeze of the late afternoon.
Bamboo is from the grass family Poaceae and has been around for millions of years. It is found in the temperate zones from the southern states of America to the lower hemisphere countries of Chile and Argentina. Europe is the only continent where these plants cannot be found to naturally occur. Africa has many large and unusual species, but the greatest forests of these spectacular plants are found naturally in Asian countries near India and China.
Bamboo in these countries is such an important staple that it is used for everything from the construction of 1,000 foot tall scaffolding surrounding new high rise towers to home flooring and dishwasher safe cutting blocks sold here in America. Some Bamboo is used to make paper, martial arts weapons and even clothing because of its fibrous make up.
Most Americans know the bamboo as food for the Giant Panda. In fact, many animals including the great apes and chimps love the soft shoots and new culms emanating from the base of the mature bamboo clumps or rhizoids and include them in their diet on a regular basis. It is well known that the fermented sap of these plants has an alcoholic effect on animals and even elephants enjoy the tender shoots of new bamboo.
For most plant enthusiasts, landscapers and homeowners though, one of the most important things to know about a bamboo is whether or not it is a running or clumping bamboo.
A running bamboo, known as monopodial will travel underground searching out new water sources and open fertile ground where it can generate new culms or baby shoots that will become new bamboo canes or trunks.
Clumping bamboo, or sympodial as the name implies, is a type of bamboo that usually stays in one location and slowly over time increases the diameter of its base leaving a mound of old spent canes in the center and new culms generating around the perimeter where light and new soils can be found.
On both, the new culms are usually soft and willowy growing at a rapid rate. Some giant timber bamboos are clumping and grow almost 34 inches per day reaching heights of 100 feet.
The new culms usually take a year to reach optimum height and harden off into new bamboo canes. During the next 2 to 3 years, the canes sprout leaves and side branches and slowly develop into mature plants.
Finally, after 5 to 7 years of life the new culm ends its life cycle by succumbing to fungus and decay because of its high sugar and starch content, which must be removed to open up the plant to light and resources.
Enjoy either, but be aware that root maintenance will eventually be involved with the running type.