What is Bamboo?

by philinshelton on January 19, 2009

in Bamboo Basics,Botanical

I know this is really basic, but I encounter so much confusion about how bamboo grows, I just have to write it: bamboo doesn't have bark!  And, it doesn't have bark because?  It's a grass, and grasses don't have bark!  If you are brand new to bamboo, that's a key bit of info you'll need in order to understand how bamboo grows.  I go into this topic more thoroughly in my article Bamboo vs. Wood, but for now, let's move on to some basic bamboo botany.   Bamboos, along with all other true grasses, are in the family Poaceae.  The majority of bamboos are evergreen perennials with woody stems, but there are some herbaceous perennial bamboos as well (bamboo wannabees I call 'em).  The woody bamboos are segregated into a "tribe" called Bambuseae.  This tribe contains all of the tropical and temperate, woody bamboos.  Depending on what you read or who you talk to, there are somewhere between 1000-2000 different species and forms of bamboo, and it seems a few new bamboos are discovered each year.  Of these, there are probably around 500 or so temperate bamboos.  And of those 500, there are about 250 or so frost hardy bamboos that will grow west of the Cascade Mountains in Washington, Oregon and southern British Columbia.  By far, the greatest number of temperate bamboos available in the U.S., are native to Asia. To sketch it out very roughly, the timber-size bamboos (runners that are potentially invasive) are native to lower elevations of China and Japan; many of the mid-size running bamboos are found at somewhat higher elevations or further north; and some of the very cold hardiest shrub and dwarf bamboos are native to northern Japan and the Kuril Islands.  Most of the hardy clumping bamboos (non-invasive, usually slow to spread) found in the U.S. are native to montane environments in China, Nepal, and Tibet (Himalayas and other ranges).  Several species are native to Chile (Andes Mountains) and one species is native to mountain regions of South Africa.  This is a extremely simplified explanation of  bamboo distribution, but these first articles are for Bamboo Beginners, after all.  Look for more specifics in future articles!  In the meantime, there are many books and websites with very detailed information.  For starters, try bambooweb.info for the most comprehensive database of bamboos growing in the U.S., including details on cold hardiness, and maximum size.  Bambooweb.info also has pictures of many of the bamboos listed there, and much, much more.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Pete Bray May 17, 2009 at 11:32 pm

I own a number of acres in very sandy, very dry SE Oregon… I am wondering if you might recommend a bamboo that could adapt to the climate?

I don’t suppose you know if planting bamboo in these area could somehow be considered introducing a “noxious weed”? The land I own is near Christmas Valley Sand Dunes… with its “lost forest” of ponderosa pines that survive because of weird water conditions. Anyway, I own about 70 acres here with a spring. I would like to grow bamboo in this very sandy area, but am wondering how much water bamboo will effectively “deny” from the ponderosa, if they will grow okay, and if they might be considered “noxious” by local farmers?

Any help would be appreciated.

Can bamboo spread like ivy just by wind, or does it only spread by rhizome??

philinshelton May 18, 2009 at 4:18 pm

It spreads only by rhizome. In your climate, you shouldn’t have to worry about invasiveness. Depending on the number of frost free days you have, and depending on how cold the winters get, you may be able to find a variety that will adapt and grow well. It generally doesn’t grow very well in most of Eastern WA. Not sure how it will affect the pines

PP June 9, 2009 at 10:24 pm

Hi, I am “bamboo-lover” so as a bamboo beginner from Malaysia.
You hv great info here, thanks for sharing. Welcome to my blog and share more details with me. Thanks.

philinshelton June 10, 2009 at 6:33 am

I am glad you found the information useful!

Werner Michael Heus October 9, 2009 at 4:27 pm

Hello Phil,
I “only” can congrate you to this great blog and the concrte info. I`m myself a bamboo lover since long time and with the inspiration I got from your blog, I started myself a bamboo blog.

I hope you will have an eye on it and wish you good luck on all your ways
Kind regards from “good old” Germany
Werner Michael

philinshelton October 9, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Thanks! I am glad you enjoy the information and will be looking forward to reading your blog articles!

Gary Zerbst May 2, 2010 at 12:31 pm

I live on Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. We have about 20 inches annual rainfall. The clayey soil here is poorly drained in winter and dry as old popcorn in summer. We have many deer that seem to browse in our meadow but the real deer damage to our unfenced plants is done by the deer rattling their antlers against our plants or rubbing the velvet off.
I would like a clumping low (under 15 ft) shrubby bamboo to plant about 10 ft away from the west side of our house with no shade from the afternoon sun but shaded until about noon by the shadow of the house. That would put it about 300 ft away from the beach which is to the east of our house and which creates a marine tempered climate with frequent breezy days. It must not grow into or interfere with the perimeter drains that keep the crawlspace from flooding in winter. Before I found your website I had ordered a Fargesia Denudata. Now I’m wondering if that was the right choice.
PS: I could not find your address on your website. Did I just miss it?
Your internet “handle” seems to indicate Shelton WA. Is my guess correct?
Can I buy bamboo from you or is your website primarily a private enthusiast’s blog?

Michal Odendaal February 28, 2013 at 12:45 am

Please could you send me contact information of anybody in South Africa who grows bamboo. The Moso specie (used to make scaffolding) or Balcoa is what I am looking for. Or any specie that you might think is as strong as those two species. I want to build surfboards using the bamboo to construct the inner core of the boards.
Your help is dearly appreciated.
Kind Regards
Michal – +27 72 976 9134

malak taha May 7, 2015 at 10:01 am

well im doing a project in my science class and need info about bamboo so i refered to this and go my info thanks!!!

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