By Jill Henderson
Mention the word “bamboo” and visions of China, panda bears and exotic jungles readily come to mind for most of us living in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, the majority of the 1,450 species of true bamboo found throughout the world originate in Southern and Southeastern Asian countries, with a few scattered species found in Africa and the beech forests of Chile in South America.
Some bamboo species grow more densely than any forest you can imagine and produce giant canes as big around as a small tree, while others are as diminutive as a clump of native big bluestem prairie grass to which all bamboo is related. In fact, bamboo belongs to the true grass family Poaceae which contains some 10,000 recognized species and represents the fifth-largest plant family on Earth.
The United States is home to three very distinct native species of bamboo, which are collectively known as cane.
Native Bamboo: Cane History & Ecology
When the first Europeans set out to explore the New World they encountered massive canebrakes so dense they were nearly impenetrable. These natural obstacles were so massive that explorers had to navigate around them, sometimes for miles. While cane was present in much of the southern and southeastern half of the United States, the largest canebrakes in North America were found along the edges and floodplains of major rivers such as the Mississippi and its tributaries.
While these great brakes were a boon for wildlife and native peoples alike, early explorers and settlers found them little more than an impediment to travel — until they learned that cattle not only loved to eat river cane, but quickly grew fat on it. Soon enough the brakes would be eradicated by overgrazing and the settlers’ desire to farm the rich, fertile soil that the cane helped produce.
Native Americans admired the rich soil found in canebrakes, often clearing small plots along the edges to grow corn, beans, squash and melons. Native people took great care in nurturing and protecting the canebrakes because they also supported a wide array of bird and animal species that were another source of food.
As in all early indigenous cultures, plants served many roles within the society. River cane was not only a subsistence crop, but a source of strong, straight and sturdy material used to construct an array of tools, weapons, basketry, traps, cages, footwear, bedding and even lodging.
Unfortunately, like so many of the abundant natural resources found in the New World, early settlers quickly decimated river cane through overgrazing and farming. This was the beginning of the end for American canebrakes.
Today a whopping 98 percent of America’s native bamboo has been extirpated from the landscape, raising concerns for the future of the infinite life forms that rely on the habitat created by them. A. J. Hendershott, writing for Missouri Conservationist Magazine in 2002, succinctly describes the importance of canebrakes: “Cane thickets make great wildlife cover. Indigo buntings, cardinals, hooded warblers, evening grosbeaks, water thrushes and other songbirds use it for refuge from predators. Golden mice, southeastern shrews and other small mammals hide in cane stands, too. Swamp rabbits use canebrakes for cover and food, hence their nickname: canecutters.”
Cane also helps build and prevent the loss of topsoil along the river’s edge, while reducing the introduction of sediment to the river system through deforestation, road-building and farming. Sediment buildup can clog gravelly or rocky riverbeds that fish and other native aquatic species need to reproduce.
Needless to say, native bamboo isn’t just for the birds. Cane growing along embankments and floodways improves water quality by controlling erosion and stabilizing embankments, particularly during times of flooding. In fact, cane’s deep rhizomes hold soil better than any riverside plant, including trees.
Identification & Culture
With such an important role in the ecosystem, the call to restore native bamboo was quickly acted upon and many riparian areas are once again home to these native plants. It also brought about the discovery of a new species of cane found in the Appalachian Mountains in 2007. Appropriately dubbed, Arundinaria appalachiana, hill cane joined river cane (Arundinaria gigantea) and switch cane (Arundanaria tecta) to make up the only temperate native species of bamboo found in the Northern Hemisphere.
Although typically referred to as canes, these three distinct species are true bamboos that are very closely related to species found in Asia and parts of South America. All three are “running” bamboo, which means they spread via creeping rhizomes.
Even with extensive restoration efforts and native cane becoming more common, most people don’t know the difference between the three native species and any number of non-native ornamental species.
If you’re driving down the highway and see a thick stand of brightly colored giant bamboo, chances are you are witnessing what I call “landscape renegades” of Asian origin.
According to Margaret Cirtain from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, the most common and aggressive species of non-native bamboo found in the wild is golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea), sometimes referred to as yellow or fishpole bamboo. Her article, “Identifying Native Bamboos,” found on the Native and Naturalized Plants of the Carolinas and Georgia website (namethatplant.net/article_nativebamboo.shtml), is an excellent and detailed resource for anyone interested in learning how to tell the difference between native and non-native bamboo species.
America’s native bamboos were originally found growing in various parts of the southeastern United States, depending on the species: from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas on the western edge, along the southern boundaries of the Great Lakes north and east to New York and south along the coastal region to southern Florida and every state in between.
River or giant cane is the largest and most noticeable of the three natives. This lowland species prefers growing on the banks and along the floodplains of large rivers and their tributaries. The more sedate and diminutive switch cane and hill cane, found primarily in the southern states, prefer the drier and partly shaded woodland settings found at the edges of seeps, springs, small creeks, draws and wet-weather streams.
Grow Your Own
Humans can enjoy native bamboo as a privacy screen or windbreak, to create shady nooks or hide unsightly obstacles such as propane tanks or ugly fences. Native bamboo often grows where grass won’t and is a great help at slowing down water and preventing erosion. When dried, the canes make wonderful building materials for garden trellises and plant supports, as well as a myriad of crafty and useful items. Like all true bamboos, native species spread via an underground system of segmented rhizomes from which their roots grow. All bamboos are classified as “clumping” or “running.”
Clumping bamboo tends to grow outward in a circular fashion, rarely moving far beyond its original planting site. On the other hand, running bamboo seeks out new territory via creeping rhizomes that spread in all directions, often creating dense screens or stands. Although all of our native species are running bamboo, river cane is larger and much more aggressive than the other two, especially when it is grown in rich, moist, loamy soils — the ideal of conditions for any bamboo species.
Planting native cane, particularly hill and switch cane in heavy soils or in areas that are excessively dry or sunny might somewhat curtail their growth and hence, their wandering habits.
I strongly suggest planting any of these species in a place that will not infringe on neighboring property or wander into flowerbeds, under landscape blocks, or other sensitive areas. Plan to mow at least 4 or 5 feet around the entire patch, just in case.
In general, native bamboos are heat- and cold-tolerant perennials that prefer rich, consistently moist, slightly acidic soils with a pH of 6-6.5. All but hill cane are evergreen in their native habitats, though the leaves may brown slightly during the winter months.
River cane is the largest of the three native bamboos, reaching heights of 6 feet and spreading as far as it is allowed by soil and water conditions. When mature, river cane can tolerate periods of running or standing water and full sun.
Switch cane generally grows to heights of around 6 feet at maturity when grown in excellent condition found in consistently moist soils and partial-shade generated by large trees like pine and oak. Hill cane, which is deciduous, also reaches up to 6 feet, but prefers full shade from mature trees and well-drained slopes or swales. Hill cane is especially fond of seeps and springs in its native habitat.
The two biggest problems homeowners face when growing native bamboos include the scarcity of authentic nursery plants and the length of time it takes them to reach maturity. Keep in mind that removing plants from public lands is often illegal without a permit and may degrade the size or quality of the stand. The simplest method is to locate a reputable native plant nursery and buy from them.
If you’re having a hard time finding a nursery specializing in native bamboo, try contacting your local conservation department. Whatever you do, do not buy bamboo “seed.” Bamboo rarely, if ever, blooms and produces seed, so either the advertisement is a scam or the person selling the seed has been misinformed.
Should you have a private, identifiable source of true native bamboo, or are interested in dividing specimens you already have, take care to dig them carefully. Take only clumps that include a large portion of culms, rhizomes and roots while still retaining as much natural soil around them as possible.
Transplanting is best undertaken in late winter or early spring. Start by digging a hole at least twice as deep and wide as the rhizomes you are working with and backfill with high-quality loamy soil. If your soil is less than ideal, adding plenty of shredded organic material at planting time is helpful to get new roots growing quickly. Much like irises, the rhizomes of bamboo must be covered with only a few inches of soil. If buried too deeply, they can rot.
As the bamboo matures, spent leaves fall and accumulate around the base of the plants. These leaves make perfect mulch, containing high levels of silica and other chemicals that the plants recycle into the nutrients they need to grow. Until this occurs naturally take steps to provide young plants with 2 inches of organic mulch, which helps keep the soil consistently moist and cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Because bamboo is related to grass, which contains high levels of nitrogen and silica, any kind of grass also makes excellent mulch for bamboo. Otherwise, hay, wood chips or leaves work well.
In addition to mulching, newly planted bamboo may need to be shaded from the hot summer sun for a short time to prevent leaf scorch. They will also need regular, deep watering to ensure steady growth. This is especially true in the early period after transplanting and on very hot or windy days in the first year after transplanting.
Although mature river cane can tolerate periods of inundation by water, none of the three native species ever grow in standing water, and young plants that are watered too much or planted in water-logged soils suffer as much as those not watered enough. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy.
If you are concerned about bamboo running amuck through your neighborhood, plan for that before you plant. Utilize natural barriers that are at least 6 inches deep and span a large area, such as along concrete driveways, roadways, rocky embankments and cement foundations. Planting bamboo within an area of lawn can also be helpful, as regular mowing will prevent rhizomes from spreading out-of-bounds.
Another alternative is to install impenetrable bamboo barriers at planting time. Visit any nursery that specializes in bamboo for more information on installing barriers. If you don’t have naturally loose soil in the area in which you are planting, avoid creating a deep bed of loamy soil at planting time. Keeping the relatively hard native soil beneath bamboo rhizomes can help stop the rhizomes from ducking under barriers. The Bamboo Garden website (bamboo garden.com), has a lot of useful information on planting and containing bamboo.
Native Bamboo: Beyond Aesthetics
Once your native bamboo is mature, you can selectively harvest canes for a variety of uses. The shoots of all three native bamboo species are delicious, having a crunchy texture and a taste akin to raw sweet corn. They’re also nutritious and low in fat and calories.
According to a brochure by Cooperative Extension Service at Washington State University, one cup of bamboo shoots is reported to contain approximately 14 calories and half a gram of fat. They are also high in fiber and a good source of heart-healthy potassium (640 mg per 1 cup serving).
Fresh bamboo shoots also contain healthy phytochemicals that have antioxidant, antimutagenic, antibacterial and antiviral actions. They also include lignan, a natural phytoestrogen, and phenolic acids, which are known to be powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Besides being tasty and good for you and the environment, growing and selling native bamboo rhizomes, potted plants, cane poles and delectable young shoots, can also bring added income to your farm business.
America’s native bamboo is as important and valuable today as it has ever been. It is an important natural and cultural resource that Americans should employ, both in the home landscape and in the wild. By avoiding exotic Asian cultivars and planting only America’s native bamboo species, we do ourselves and our environment a great service.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is editor of Show Me Oz, a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.