In Louis De Marco's lush, peaceful Siesta Key garden stands a magnificent grove of Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis) full of filtered light and contemplative beauty. Like a cathedral's majestic organ, the imposing canes reach 70 feet high, wind eliciting melodic clatter from the swaying stalks.
"It began with a small clump, about two feet tall, I purchased at a Selby Gardens plant fair 12 years ago," De Marco reflects. "I never suspected it would reach such heights and majesty."
Bamboo is not just beautiful, it's also very strong and useful, he explains. "In China, Japan and Asia Minor, it has been the primary construction material for bridges, homes, and furnishings for thousand of years. It is also food, and is used for making a great variety of practical objects from kitchen tools, paper and dinnerware to fishing rods and musical instruments."
Case in point is the unique arbor De Marco built from canes he harvested from his prized grove. On either side of a pathway, sturdy stalks set in the ground provide a support for crisscrossing smaller stems used to form a pergola. A Petria vine, also know as queen's wreath or Florida wisteria, is quickly entwining itself around the canes. "The concept was to have a natural canopy supported by material indigenous to the garden rather than using a ready-made steel or plastic arbor," he explains.
Bamboo is actually a member of the grass family. Once upon a time in North America, great expanses of bamboo, known as the Breaks, spread across the Southeast until settlers cut them down. But bamboo is a survivor and, like grass, grows rapidly and in many climates-not just tropical-from jungles to high mountainsides. It varies in height from dwarf (one foot) plants to giant timber reaching over 100 feet.
Bamboos are defined by their types of roots. Some, called runners, spread exuberantly-as far as 30 to 40 feet in one season. Others are classified as clumpers, which slowly expand from the original planting. Generally, tropical bamboos tend to be clumpers and temperate bamboos are more apt to be runners. (There are also varieties of root systems that are a marriage of these two types.)
The way new cane emerges, and the lightning speed of its growth, is a unique phenomenon. Each new shoot appears from the ground with the diameter the mature cane will have, and then grows to full height in about 60 days at the remarkable rate of 12 inches per day. (That fast growth has made it the eco-friendly darling of the home furnishings industry; beyond its rich golden earth tones and durability, bamboo takes just five years to grow to maturity. Regrowth begins immediately with new shoots when harvested, while providing 25 times the biomass of a comparable stand of trees.)
New shoots are particular to each species. There is a delicate little bamboo that weeps with bright green leaves from lavender-colored canes. There is a bamboo fully enveloped with tiny leaves on slim little canes that sway like feathers in the breeze. There is a bamboo with soft, velvety leaves. Others have tiny hair-like curls around the bases of leaf stems and cane sheaths. Some have saw-toothed leaf edges that can cut quickly and sharply.
Leaves come in a multitude of shades and forms, from slim, pointed and ellipsoid to striped, fat and elongated, tight to the ground or airy as a butterfly. Canes can be streaked with rosy, green and violet shades, or speckled with deep browns and onyx blacks. Under the sunlight, cane sheaths' iridescent insides dance with color and shadow. To bamboo lovers, they are, aesthetically speaking, the equivalent of flowers.
In or out? Only a few species of bamboos will flourish indoors; Phyllostachys nigra, Fargesia spp and a variety of Sasa are good bets. When kept in low light conditions, bamboos require a cool temperature. Plants will suffer if over-watered and need to be repotted every year or two.
Clump-Forming or Running? Running bamboo can become invasive if not controlled. Its rhizomes spread underground and shoots emerge in the spring. Cutting or mowing will prevent their proliferation. Phyllostachys aureosulcata is a classic running bamboo. Used as a natural barrier, these graceful giants will reach a height of 70 feet in a decade. Arrow bamboo (Pseudosasa japonica), an ideal choice for beginners, looks good as a hedge or in an island-shaped grove. Fargesia nitida, a clumping bamboo that grows from six to 10 feet, is a good choice for a meditation garden.
Sun or Shade? Most bamboo will not prosper if given too much or too little sun. Golden, or fishpole, bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) will grow to 30 feet high and prefers sun. The bright yellow P. viridistriatus does best in full sun. The leaves of shade-loving Sasa veitchii evolve from dark green in summer to light green in winter, and Sasa palmate, a running bamboo, prefers cool, shady places where its foliage remains thick and leathery throughout the year.
Placement: A grove of bamboo does not require a large property, but most large bamboos grow more quickly and do best in full sun. They require water, fertilizing and protection from competing weeds. They will benefit from a windscreen and light shade when first planted.
Planting: Bamboo is a forest plant and does best if mulch is kept over the roots and rhizomes. If left under the plant, fallen bamboo leaves provide excellent organic mulch, keeping the soil moist and recycling natural chemicals necessary to the bamboo. New plantings need frequent and liberal watering during hot summer days. A fertilizer high in nitrogen (such as a lawn fertilizer) will produce a healthy, vigorous plant.