Begin with Bamboos

Holland's Wilco Karmelk introduces China's best-known export.
Wilco Karmelk, K. Karelstraat 19, 4521 AE Biervliet, Netherlands
Chamaerops No. 8, published online 23-10-2002

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Phyllostachys in Belgium

Bamboo is native to almost every continent. The majority of species however come from Asia. Bamboo has been highly valued in the Far East for centuries where it has a unique role to play in daily life. It has countless uses and has been used for food, paper, construction and in medicines. The range of its usefulness is perhaps unequalled by any other resource.

The bamboos are the tallest members of the grass family and they grow more rapidly than any other plant in the world. Growth of more than a metre in a 24-hour period has been recorded.

In European gardens bamboos are mainly grown as specimen plants because of the superb ornamental value of their foliage. Until relatively recently, however, very few people realised their potential as garden plants and yet they are among the finest for creating an exotic effect.

Only a few hardy species of bamboo have been cultivated in our gardens. Too often people associate bamboo with steaming tropical jungles, making the mistake of regarding them all as tender. In fact, dozens of species come from temperate climates with cold winters. However, over the last couple of years the situation has changed and the number of hardy species made available by nurseries has been greatly increased.

All species of hardy bamboos are evergreens. The stems that carry the branches and leaves are called culms. They reach their ultimate height in the first growing season and in only a few months. The culm diameter does not increase any more with age like it does in all other forms of trees and shrubs. The successive generations of culms the following year will be slightly larger in diameter and are found to be greater in height as well. This goes on until the average height of the species has been achieved. The new sprouts shoot up from rhizomes, the underground system that expands from the base of the parent plant.

The flowering of bamboo has always been shrouded in mystery. Certain species can take at least sixty years before flowering. It is often believed that if one species of bamboo starts to flower in a particular locality, it will do so throughout the world. This is not entirely true. Plants that flower simultaneously undoubtedly came from the same parent plant that has been divided and re-divided over a period of years. In this manner the same botanical identity is retained and all of these plants flower at the same time. If, however, plants come from different sources in their native habitat they all have their own botanical identity that varies within narrow limits. There's a good chance that the period of flowering of these plants will be different.

Most of the hardy bamboos thrive best in moist and warm environments, sheltered from strong winds. They won't do well in a very exposed position. North and east winds especially can be harmful. Certain species need to grow in shade whilst others prefer full sunlight. Nearly all types of soil are suitable as long as they are well drained and kept constantly moist. The hardy bamboos range in size from the pygmies of only 30 cm to giants of twelve metres or more. In favourable climates such as the south of France, a few species will reach well over 20 metres in height.

One species that has been cultivated in European gardens for a long period of time is Pseudosasa japonica. The leaves are medium-large and the habit of growing is stiff and erect. It is excellent for hedging and ideal for windbreaks. Other ones like Arundinaria (Fargesia) murielae and Semiarundinaria nitida are bone hardy and very graceful looking. They are of the clump-forming type.

An excellent low-growing bamboo, and one of my favourites, is Arundinaria viridistriata with its attractive golden-yellow striped foliage. In a cold winter the leaves may damage but it always gives new fresh brilliant coloured growth in spring.
The most impressive hardy bamboos are found among the Phyllostachys species. These are often used as specimen plants.

Phyllostachys nigra, the Black Bamboo first introduced into Europe in 1827 is still one of the most popular species. The culms are initially green maturing to an attractive shiny black.

Most often seen in nurseries is Phyllostachys aurea. It is particularly suitable as a tub-plant because new culms emerge in close proximity to the parent plant. It is not one of the hardiest Phyllostachys but it will thrive in a sheltered part of the garden.

The tallest bamboo in Europe is Phyllostachys heterocycla f. pubescens (Ph. edulis). In southern France culms can reach 25 metres in height with a culm diameter of 15cm. Other very tall species are Ph. bambusoides and Ph. viridis. All of these love heat but they won't grow as high in more northern parts of Europe.

Phyllostachys viridi-glaucescens is a very fast grower that is somewhat more invasive than others. The leaves are quite large and have a bluish underside. When mature it has rather frothy frondage that causes bending over of the culms which is very attractive. In the warmer continental climate of Germany, a few plants have reached well over 10 cm in height. In cooler areas it may reach 6 metres. In Kew Gardens in London, one plant has some culms, which are over four centimetres in diameter.
There are a large number of species within the genus Sasa. The most well known species are probably Sasa palmata with very large leaves and Sasa veitchii whose leaves develop a pale brown margin in winter. Some of the smaller species of Sasa can be perfectly used as ground cover.

All of the bamboos described above and many more may be seen in a number of bamboo gardens in Europe. The largest and most impressive collection is in the Parc of Prafrance, Anduze, in the south of France, where real giant bamboos can be seen.
In Paris, at the Parc de in Villette, thirty species of bamboos grow closely together in a specially constructed valley creating a perfect microclimate.The finest bamboo

collection in the United Kingdom is to be seen in Kew Gardens, in London, where the first planting started in 1896.

Nowadays many public gardens in Europe have nice plantings of bamboo. Go and see them. Don't miss out on these highly recommended plants for every garden.

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