Bamboo Anew

Take a Closer Look at this Versatile Grass


By Kathy Jentz


Those cute National Zoo pandas’ favorite treat is also one of the most versatile and useful plants in the garden. Bamboo is underused in the Washington metropolitan area and is saddled with a bad reputation. It deserves a second look and a more accurate understanding of its better qualities.


Nancy Moore Bess author of Bamboo in Japan remarks, “It is the ugly word invasive that gives bamboo a bad rap. I have given lectures during which people have interrupted and announced that all bamboo is invasive and bad. Some people will not let go of misinformation. Some authors perpetuate that misinformation.”


“Site placement is a key element when thinking about bamboo (or any potentially invasive plant),” cautions Bess. “On our property I have planted an aggressive running bamboo, Phyllostachys aureosulcata, in several places. By the road and along my Goshen stone path, I have placed no barriers. When this variety shoots in the spring, I take out my coffee and shovel and edge the bamboo beds. That is it for the year! Another bamboo bed borders my neighbor’s property. For that site, I had a backhoe dig a pit which I lined with professional root barrier, backfilled the hole, and planted my bamboo.”


Susanne Lucas of Bamboo Select ( recommends the bamboo Fargesia Rufa ‘Green Panda’ and Fargesia Robusta ‘Green Screen’ to the Mid-Atlantic home gardener. “If you don’t want to deal with the responsibility of planting running bamboos, consider these clumping bamboos – they are just like other tall ornamental grasses, but are evergreen,” says Lucas.


Some who condemn bamboo are surprised to learn there are native species of the grass that are highly coveted by collectors. The Giant cane bamboo (Arundinaria gigantea) is hard to establish and propagate for home gardeners because it likes wet ground. They once covered wide, impenetrable streambed corridors across the Eastern US. They are still naturally found along stream and other damp, swampy areas.


For those truly worried about root spread or who have a limited planting space, bamboos are perfectly adaptable to containers. They will need to be divided every few years when they outgrow their pots, but otherwise are extremely low maintenance.


Bamboo comes in colors ranging from pale yellow to jet black and in sizes from just a few inches tall to several yards high. There is a bamboo for each need and situation. Bamboo is also easily combined and contrasted with various other plants. Lucas recommends planting it with, “hosta, ligularia, hydrangea, rhododendron, almost anything!” While Bess recommends combinations with Carex (sedges) and tall ornamental grasses.


Wolfgang Oehme, legendary local landscape architect, has used bamboo in his installation and his own home gardens since the 1960s. “It is useful for both screening and as a specimen focal point planting in the landscape,” says Oehme.


“Bamboo has a lot of other great features too,” Oehme explains. “It is evergreen and absorbs carbon dioxide even in the wintertime – while evergreens and other plants do not, so it is a great help in fighting global warming.”


Bamboo is a wonderful raw materials resource and is being used in making clothing, flooring, paper, and much more. Dave Flanagan of Bamboo Fencer, Inc. ( says, “I make things of bamboo, many of which are of considerable interest to the gardener — plant stakes, limb props, path definers, fences, gates, gateways, baskets, sculpture, firewood, charcoal, walking sticks, flower containers, water fountains, screens for air conditioner condensers, and pool equipment are just a few uses.”


Flanagan continues, “Some good species grow well in the Virginia and Maryland area with diameters that are large enough to do sizable projects.  These include Phyllostachys aurea, flexuosa, nigra ‘Henon’, nuda, and congesta to mention a few. The key to success is not the species, it is the age of the culm when cut. Never ever cut one for structural use that is less than three years old. I am interested in taking the pressure off of hardwoods that are being logged to extinction in many cases. Bamboo is totally renewable, very attractive in its own way, very strong, and with some skill and techniques can be made into very long lasting useful and beautiful products.”


If you find yourself falling in love with bamboo and its many possibilities in your garden, you may want to join like-minded folks at the American Bamboo Society (  Their mission is to share information on the use, care, propagation, and beauty of bamboo.


For further information, the following sources are highly regarded by bamboo enthusiasts: Bamboo for Gardens by Ted Meredith (Timber Press),  The Journal of Japanese Gardening (,  and Bamboo in Japan by Nancy Moore Bess.




Yes, bamboo comes in many colors, but this adventurous paint treatment of Phyllostachys dulcis by Nancy Valk in the home garden of Paul Babikow is not found in nature. Babikow is a well-known wholesale plant seller located just outside of Baltimore, MD.

   Photo taken by Kathy Jentz at the recent spring meeting of the Northeast Chapter of the American Bamboo Society.




Kathy Jentz is editor of Washington Gardener magazine and is a long-time DC area gardening enthusiast. Washington Gardener magazine, is the only gardening publication published specifically for the local metro area — zones 6-7 — Washington DC and its suburbs.

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About the Author

Kathy Jentz
Kathy Jentz is editor of Washington Gardener magazine and is a long-time DC area gardening enthusiast. Washington Gardener is all about gardening where you live. She can be reached at @WDCgardener on Twitter and welcomes your local DMV gardening questions.

6 Comments on "Bamboo Anew"

  1. Great article Ms. Kathy. But I’m still afraid to grow bamboo even though I’ve never had any.

  2. I don’t blame you, TC. Bamboo’s reputation can be daunting. HOw about trying some in containers?

  3. Can you show some pictures of the bamboo flooring?

  4. A well-balanced article, Kathy. Running bamboo still makes me nervous because so many plant it and then let it run into parkland. I was just hacking my way through some yesterday at Little Falls Stream Valley Park. I call these “bamboo deserts.” Nothing else can grow where we should be seeing a nice herbaceous and shrub layer. Of course, it keeps the porcelainberry and other miscreants at bay. Gardeners, if you MUST plant running bamboo, be responsible and use barriers, site it properly, and keep it in check.

  5. PC – I find many of the bamboo problems starting on private property to be from two causes:
    1. a homeowner who gets ills or otherwise cannot stay on top of their gardening chores – after a few years the bamboo escapes its bounds – wishing some younger relatives/friends/neighbors would check in on the older folks to help out one weekend a year for annual garden tidying tasks
    2. a house with running bamboo in the landscape gets sold and the new owners (and those on down the line) have no idea that it takes at least annual maintenance much less ANY maintenance to keep it in check — after 2-3 yrs of neglect, again, it is off and running

  6. Bamboo has a variety of use and it is cheap to install. Anyone can use it for decorating his houses or gardens.

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