Bamboos are woody grasses and there are about a thousand species found across the world either in moist tropical areas, or in warm temperate countries.
In all there roughly a thousand species subdivided between 91 genera and although we can’t grow them all, because tropical bamboos do not thrive in British gardens, there’s still a lot of choice.
Lots of gardeners don’t quite trust the bamboo, because the first bamboos introduced into Britain in the late 19th century were rampant species from lowland China. These formed large groves in many Victorian gardens, particularly in south-western areas, and most of us shudder at the thought. Growth habit often varies according to location so a bamboo that’s rather rampant in the rain-laden maritime climate of Cornwall will behave quite differently on the drier side of eastern Britain, despite being the same plant. It’s this mixture of fear and uncertainty, regarding size and spread, that often puts gardeners off or leads them to put them in a pot. Most bamboos sulk in a pot.
Thankfully bamboos have changed. In the last 30 years much-better behaved ones have been introduced from the cold, mountainous regions of Chile and the Himalayas. These high-altitude varieties are clump formers, not aggressive spreaders, and some are suitable for smaller gardens, although all bamboos need space to shine.
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Why grow bamboo?
Used properly they add another dimension to a garden, especially in autumn and winter when their canes and evergreen foliage provide colour and interest. Low winter sun makes the canes look much shinier, almost making them appear lacquered, and new canes can be be almost-black, green or gold. The light canopy of foliage rustles in the wind and the foliage produces a magic lantern pattern on the bare earth as the sun moves round the garden. More vigorous bamboos can be used as hedging, or as ground cover. The secret is choosing the correct one for your position.
How to choose a bamboo variety
Bamboos divide themselves into two groups. Some are tight clump-formers and, although these clumps get larger, they do stay in the same place. Others roam and run and these are not for the small garden, or the faint-hearted.
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Clump forming bamboos for smaller gardens
Fargesias come from upland areas of China and have thin, colourful canes topped by a fountain of fine foliage. These clump-forming arching bamboos can be grown in containers as well as in the garden, although they must never dry out.
Fargesia rufa (The Chinese fountain bamboo)
The foliage has an unusual blue-green glow and each slender green cane is banded with colourful sheaths that vary from orange-red to shrimp-pink, depending on the soil. The more alkaline, the more colourful the sheaths apparently. Give it some shade and it will resemble a Japanese acer from a distance. In the garden Fargesia rufa will grow to a maximum height of 2.5m (8ft), in a clump up to 1.2m (4ft) wide after 10 years so it makes a good screen or hedge. It’s one of the main bamboos cultivated in China to produce food for the Giant Panda.
A much more upright bamboo with thicker dark-green canes
banded with paper-white sheaths in summer. The contrast of white and green makes this bamboo look very handsome. It will form a tight clump measuring 1.5m (5ft) wide and tall after 10 years. ‘Campbell’ is a superior form.
These bamboos come from the higher reaches of the Himalayas and therefore appreciate a cool position sheltered from sun and wind. They often take time to become established.
Thamnocalamus crassinodus 'Kew Beauty’
The new canes have a sky-blue bloom that gradually darkens to reddish brown. The tiny leaves, borne on upright culms, give this tight clump-forming bamboo an elegant look. Remove some of the older canes every year. It grows to 4m (13ft) in height and the spread after 10 years is 2m (5ft).
The chusqueas are from the Chilean Andes, where the climate is cool and rainfall high. They form open clumps and grow quickly.
Chusquea culeou (Foxtail Bamboo)
An elegant, arching bamboo with yellow canes that turn deep-green. The leafy growth is very bushy, hence the foxtail name, and the foliage cascades down over the canes. After 10 years, it should reach 4m (13ft) in height and achieve a width of 2m (5ft).
These make ideal hedges and ground cover, where space allows, and they are often used to prevent soil erosion.
Sasa veitchii Veitch’s Bamboo
This grows in Beth Chatto's garden on sloping ground close to the pond. The canes are purple but Sasa veitchii is grown for its oval green leaves, which have a fine margin in cream. As temperatures drop the cream edge spreads so this bamboo looks striking in winter. It also makes good ground cover, reaching between 2 and 4 ft on average. It’s often cut back in spring, after its flush of growth. For a taller effect cut Sasa veitchii to the ground very early in the spring, before the new growth starts.
Pseudosasa japonica (Arrow bamboo)
Often used to form a grove or high windbreak, with pale-green canes, each as thick as your thumb, and straw-coloured sheaths. This bamboo, found naturally in Japan and Korea, is wind and shade tolerant and reaches a height of 4m (13ft) and a spread of 3m (10ft) after 10 years.
The most colourful canes
These are mostly found in Central and southern China and the cane, or culm, has a prominent grove ( called a sulcus) running along the length of each segment between nodes. Growth rate can be variable, due to growing conditions, but if they like you they’re fast and very tall.
Phyllostachys nigra Black bamboo
The most spectacular bamboo with black canes accentuated by narrow white rings. The growth habit is to form a tight clump and in good growing conditions this bamboo will reach a height of 6m (20ft) and a spread of 1.5m (5ft). It’s often used as a screen or narrow hedge, but it’s also excellent as a stand alone plant.
Phyllostachys vivax f. aureocaulis Chinese timber bamboo
This forms tight tight clumps and can rise to 10m (33ft) high - hence the word timber. The custard-yellow canes are grooved in deep green, and this bamboo can produce zigzagged canes as well as straight ones. It colours up best in harsh, exposed positions and the dark-green foliage provides a striking contrast with the gold and green canes. An ornamental giant, with its own bar code, for those with space.
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What to plant with bamboos
Bamboos are not plants that slot into the cottage gardening style, but they are architectural because they provide foliage and form in abundance.
Highlight their colour and their vertical accents by planting them with varieties of dogwood chosen for their colourful stems. The red stems of Cornus alba 'Sibirica' and the olive-green C. sericea 'Flaviramea' would both make good partners for green-stemmed bamboos.
Use them with taller grasses. Miscanthus sinensis 'Yakushima Dwarf' forms a tight, upright clump some 1m (3ft) high, topped by upward-facing plumes. It is a perfect understorey plant with taller bamboos. The pinkish-red flower spikes of Persicaria amplexicaulis also stand out well.
You can also use large-leafed catalpas or paulownias to create an overhead canopy.
Or plant them with winter-flowering Asiatic mahonias, principally varieties of Mahonia x media and Mahonia japonica, because these evergreen mahonias have an upright stance and rich green leaves topped by clusters of fragrant yellow flower spikes from November.
The best advice is to use a specialist supplier such as Burncoose (www.burncoose.co.uk), Pan-Global Plants (www.panglobalplants.com) and The Big Plant Nursery (www.bigplantnursery.co.uk). Do ask for advice before planting.
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