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Bamboo: Beautiful, Bold, Robust, Useful and Everchanging

February 17, 2001|From Associated Press

Bamboo is a wonderful architectural plant.

The upright stalks can create a living fence or a verdant backdrop for other plants.

With each season, the appearance of a grove changes. In winter, the canes, mostly hidden through summer by the foliage, stand out whenever cold nips the leaves enough to cause them to roll up. A load of snow dumped from the sky brings the canes bowing to the ground in temporary submission.

Bamboo is a grass, with more than 1,200 species ranging in height from those that hug the ground to those that reach for the sky. Though commonly associated with either Asia or the tropics, bamboo is native virtually everywhere but Europe. Native "cane brakes" once coveredlarge areas of southeastern United States from Virginia to Texas.

A number of species are cold-hardy in the north. Even where winter cold kills the tops of the plants, each spring the roots revive to fuel growth of new canes, which reach their full height in one season. Cold winters might burn the foliage, but still the khaki-colored leaves twittering on the shiny canes present a pretty sight in late winter.

Bamboo canes grow with astonishing vitality. Growth of 6 inches a day is not unusual, and some tropical bamboos grow more than a couple of feet a day. Canes thicken after their first year of growth.

Most cold-hardy bamboos have "running" roots that spread fast and far. You can contain root spread with barriers of concrete, galvanized metal or heavy plastic that protrudes a couple of inches above ground and three feet below. Tropical bamboos generally stay in more well-behaved clumps.

Periodically, oldest canes must be cut away, but these canes are useful. At the beginning of the 20th century, a German visitor to Japan recorded more than a thousand uses there for bamboo. Aside from its obvious use in bean poles, baskets, matting and fences, bamboo has also been used for scaffolding, bridges, beer and food. A charred piece of bamboo was the filament for Edison's first light bulb.

Practical uses aside, age imbues a grove of bamboo with a magical quality. Stand among the lustrous, tall canes, leafless on their lower portions, and listen as each breeze calls forth a musical rustling of the leaves.

Two excellent books about bamboo are "Temperate Bamboos" by Michael Bell and "The Book of Bamboo" by David Farrelly.

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