Choose the right bamboo

Lauren Bonar Swezey  – July 12, 2004

Related: Learn How to Bamboo

The guide below can help you choose the correct bamboo for the effect you want in your garden. Stem width and height listed are for mature plants grown with plentiful water and fertilizer. Keep in mind that immature bamboos (in 1-, 5-, and 15-gal. cans) can take 6 to 10 years or more to produce full-size stems and attain their ultimate height. On the other hand, a mature running bamboo in a 25-gallon container can fill a 100-square-foot area within three years. To create an instant screen, purchase plants with mature rhizomes from a specialty bamboo nursery; plant them 3 feet apart to create a solid hedge within two to three years. For more information, contact the American Bamboo Society.

Runners or Clumpers?

Clumping bamboos have short roots; clumps expand by only a few inches per year. Running bamboos send out rhizomes (underground stems) that travel sideways in the top 2 to 18 inches of soil, some varieties wandering many feet from the mother plant.

Running bamboos fill in quickly and are best for long screens, hedges, or groves. Most are cold-hardy. The plants need to be contained with barriers or they’ll take over your yard. Use barriers made of flexible polyethylene 30 to 40 millimeters thick (60 mil for very aggressive types) and 22 to 28 inches deep. Install the barrier around the planting’s perimeter, leaving a 3-inch lip protruding aboveground; overlap and clip the ends together with a fastener or by using galvanized bolts and polyethylene-compatible glue. If rhizomes “jump” over the exposed top of the barrier, cut them off.

Clumping bamboos make excellent focal points or attractive small screens. These kinds need an area 3 to 10 feet in diameter to develop fully but don’t need root barriers. Those listed below are slow to moderate growers. Most are frost-tender, suited for garden use only in mildest climates.


For Open Groves

Phyllostachys viridis ‘Robert Young’. Vivid yellow stems with occasional green stripes. Stems 3 in. wide; 40 ft. tall. Full sun; hardy to –5°.

P. vivax. A vigorous, fast-growing giant bamboo with smooth, bright green stems. Stems 4 in. wide; to 50 ft. tall. Full sun; –5°.

For Small Groves

Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra). Stems turn black the second year. Best with some shade; good container plant. Stems 1 1/2 in. wide; 15–20 ft. tall. Full sun (grows very slowly in shade); 0°. Leopard-skin bamboo (P. n. ‘Bory’) grows to 50 ft. tall.

For Screens or Hedges

Golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea). Very aggressive but beautiful bamboo. Plant it only in containers, planters, or in the ground with a strong root barrier. Stems 2 in. wide; 15–25 ft. tall. Full sun; 0°.

Phyllostachys rubromarginata. Green stems produce good-quality wood. Stems 3 1/2 in. wide; to 55 ft. tall. Full sun (good for hot climates); –15°.

Temple bamboo (Semiarundinaria fastuosa). Narrow, upright, slow runner (faster in warm, mild climates) with olive green stems. Stems 1 1/2 in. wide; 20–30 ft. tall. Full to partial sun; –5°.

Focal Points

Phyllostachys aureosulcata spectabilis. Bright yellow stems with green stripes in the grooves; looks good combined with P. a. ‘Yellow Groove’ (below). Stems 2 in. wide; 15–25 ft. tall. Full sun; –10°.

P. a. ‘Yellow Groove’. Green stems with bold yellow stripes in the grooves. Stems 2 in. wide; 15–25 ft. tall. Full sun; –10°.


For Screens

Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’. Gold canes with green stripes; new ones have a reddish cast. Stems 1 1/2 in. wide; to 20 ft. tall. Full sun; 18°.

Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata aztecorum). Beautiful lacy foliage. Stems 1 1/2 in. wide; to 20 ft. tall. Full sun; 20°–22°.

Umbrella bamboo (Fargesia murieliae). Weeping plant with green stems. Stems 1/2 in. wide; to 15 ft. tall. Light shade; –20°. Fountain bamboo (F. nitida) is an upright type to 12 ft. tall.

Focal Points

Blue bamboo (Himalayacalamus hookerianus). Powdery blue stems with dark purple rings. Stems 3/4 in. wide; to 20 ft. tall. Partial shade or morning sun; 15°–25°.

Chilean straight bamboo (Chusquea culeou). Feathery clumps with lime green stems and dark green nodes. Stems 1 in. wide; to 20 ft. tall. Full sun; 0°.