Begin with Bamboo

Holland's Wilco Karmelk introduces China's best-known export.
by By Wilco Karmelk, K. Karelstraat 19, 4521 AE Biervliet, Netherlands
Chamaerops No. 08, published online 23-10-2002

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.

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