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Bamboo the plant

Every farm in the South should be supplied with a small forest of the valuable plants, in the same manner as it is now supplied with a wood lot...
E. A. McIlhenny founder of the Tabasco Co.

Bamboo is a unique plant which is gaining popularity as an ornamental for the home garden. When we first started growing bamboo, we found out how little we really knew about it. Bamboo is a simple grass with over 1200 known varieties distributed throughout the world with the largest concentrations in Asia.

There is only one variety native to the United States -- Arundinaria -- with two species: A. gigantea RIVER CANE and A. gigantea tecta SWITCH CANE. Both are referred to as CANEBRAKE and grow naturally from Maryland to Georgia to Texas. The USDA in conjunction with organizations and individuals has introduced over 300 varieties into the United States.

Bamboo varieties range in height from a few inches to well over 75 feet and in diameter from 1/16 inch to 12 inches or more, depending on the variety. In the United States the largest varieties generally reach a maximum of 8 inches in diameter and 70 feet in height. The leaves of bamboo varieties range from 1/4 inch wide by 3/4 inch long to 4 inches wide by 24 inches long. You will find green leaves, variegated leaves and yellow leaves. Culm colors are green, gray, blue, yellow, orange, red, black or some hues of these.

There are two distinct parts to the plant -- the above-ground portion and the underground portion. Letís start with the terminology: The underground parts are the rhizomes and the roots. The rhizome is a segmented woody stem-like part. The segment dividers are called nodes and the segment between the nodes is the internode. The roots and rhizome buds form only at the nodes. A bud can create either a rhizome branch or an above-ground culm. Depending on the variety, the rhizome is usually much smaller than the culm. As the grove matures the rhizomes spread in all directions and form a very stable in-ground mesh, which is one reason bamboo is used for erosion control.

The above-ground portion of bamboo has several names depending on the stage of growth. When it forms on the rhizome node, it is a bud. As it emerges from the ground and until it develops side branches, it is called a shoot. Once the side branches form, it is called a culm. Once the culm is cut or harvested, it is called a pole or cane. Bud, shoot, culm, cane and pole all refer to the same individual above-ground plant. A single culm with rhizome and roots attached is usually referred to as a plant. Before being removed, it is a culm of the grove. If you plant a single bamboo plant, as it expands the new culms are all attached to the original plant by the rhizomes. The culm has the same design as the rhizome, nodes and internode sections. Most of the internode sections of the culm are hollow, but in a few varieties the internodes are almost solid. Branches form only at the nodes and have the same basic structure as the culm with leaves and side branches forming only at the nodes of the main branch or culm.

Now to the growth habits of bamboo: All bamboo culms normally shoot and grow to their full height and diameter in one growing season, usually in 60 to 90 days. In succeeding years the wood of the bamboo culms will increase in strength and silica content and the plant will put out new leaves, but the culm will never grow taller or increase in diameter after the first growing season. If you top a bamboo culm at 4 feet, that culm will always be 4 feet tall, year after year until it dies. This makes bamboo an excellent choice for hedges. The culms have a life span of 5 to 15 years.