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Bamboo in the Ozarks

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By Jeanne Christakos Duffey

Contributing Editor of GREENE

An Asian staple for centuries, bamboo is now trendy in the west. I don’t know if China has a state stalk, but if it did, it would be bamboo. Floors and furniture, salad bowls, utensils and cutting boards, sheets, towels, socks –even bicycles – are all made from the attractive, renewable and environmentally friendly plant.

Not many people realize that bamboo is grown right here in Missouri, and, at least one variety, Arundinaria gigantea, is native to the state. Imported varieties also grow well in Missouri’s climate, some invasively.


Bamboo ranges from giant varieties that grow up 70 feet to the dwarf foot-tall Pleioblastus akebono.

 Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world, a perennial evergreen in the true grass family, Poaceae, as opposed to other grass-like families such as sedges, rushes and cattails. In China, it’s a symbol of longevity; in India, it’s a symbol of friendship. In several Asian cultures, bamboo is cited in creation myths, in which the first man and first woman emerge from split bamboo stems.

 “You would love the bamboo here in Hong Kong,” said Springfield native Ellen Bogard in an e-mail. “They have huge stalks, as you might imagine, as big as trees.”
Although banned in mainland China for buildings more than six stories high, bamboo is widely used in Hong Kong construction as scaffolding. 

“A truck full of huge stalks pulls up and crews put it together with basically giant twisty ties. They build 80 stories out of bamboo. I used to be afraid to walk under them because it just seemed unbelievable that it would actually work, but now I do it all the time because it’s everywhere,” said Bogard.

Bamboo forests, called canebrakes, were once common in Missouri. Early settlers used the woody stems, or canes, for pasturing horses, cows and sheep. Cattle that grazed on the phosphorus-rich cane produced more nutritious milk and butter.

Bamboo grows taller than many grasses because it makes wood unlike its herbaceous non-woody family relatives. Unlike ornamental grasses, its leaves are flat, its stems cylindrical and hollow. The woody stems branch and grow stalked leaves.

In the garden, the versatile bamboo can be grown as a hedge, screen, border, specimen plant in a focal setting, or, in pots.

Bamboo ranges from giant varieties such as Phyllostachys edulis that grow as tall as 70 feet to the dwarf foot-tall miniature Pleioblastus akebono. Bamboo adds an exotic, dreamy atmosphere to the garden and home landscaping. The tropical feel of bamboo, some with colored canes and variegated foliage, can be mesmerizing. The soft rustling in the breeze of the tall, tree-like varieties soothes the senses and its soft, quiet greenery comforts the soul.

Create the tropical effect by complementing the bamboo with palms and ferns. Add attractive ground cover to provide a foundation for the soaring canes. To create a screen, plant bamboo in a zig-zag pattern instead of a row. Contemporary aluminum-sheathed or galvanized pots suit the shorter varieties of bamboo.

Bamboo Shoots

What's not to like about Bamboo? Listen up...

If you have room, you can create a bamboo grove. Plant three large plants six feet apart. Lay a winding path through the grove using bark chips or gravel. Want an Asian look in the garden? Surround your bamboo plants with landscaping pebbles or stones.

A care-free plant, bamboo needs no trimming. An occasional removal of dead canes will keep the plant tidy. Like other grasses, you can trim the plant down from the top in late winter. Bamboo grows quickly, – as much as four feet in 24 hours. Spring is the best time to plant and most varieties grow best in a sunny location. Bamboos benefit from good drainage, mulches of organic materials, moisture-retentive soil and shelter from strong winds.

So far, so good.

What’s not to like about bamboo? Listen up. This is important. Bamboo’s root systems come in two types. Clumping (sympodial) bamboos with their compact root systems tend to stay where they are planted. Running (monopodial) bamboo’s rhizomes grow horizontally underground and sprout new canes in all directions. The latter can be invasive and, as one nurseryman said, “take over the neighborhood.”

On the other hand, Jon Ardle in “Bamboos and Grasses,” says that “most of them are nowhere near as invasive as is popularly believed, being no more difficult to control than trees or shrubs that require annual pruning.” But it still pays to know which type you are buying.

You can control the runners by growing them in containers, corralling them with a flexible plastic barrier or a large diameter concrete drainage pipe. Or, you can attack the offending and out-of-control rhizomes with a spade. Me, I’d just avoid buying running bamboos.

Bamboo is not easy to locate in area nursery centers – my first choice of vendors – and you need to be careful that you are buying the variety you want online. But the hunt for a plant that will turn your garden into a little bit of the Orient is worth it.

The Versatile Bamboo

The shoots, called culms, that emerge from the ground much like asparagus are edible and used in Asian dishes and broths.
They are sold fresh and canned in grocery stories. Some species contain toxins that need to be bleached or boiled out before the shoots can be eaten

In China, bamboo is used for treating infections.

A low-calorie source of potassium, bamboo has a sweet taste and is a good source for nutrients and protein.

Bamboo can be cut and laminated into sheets and planks. Long used as flooring in China and Japan, laminated bamboo flooring began to be sold in the west in the mid-1990s.

The bamboo goods industry is expected to be worth $25 billion by 2012.

Resources on bamboo

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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