Bamboo is a fascinating horticultural oddity. Not a tree, it’s the largest member of the grass family, with some varieties growing nearly 120 feet high. It can do this at an astonishingly fast rate (up to three feet in a day, or 1.5 inches an hour for the taller species), reaching full height in its first three to four months of growth. It does this because bamboo shoots are divided into segments that each expand, or elongate (think telescope).
These "gregarious," or mass, flowerings can take several years to unfold. And like so much in nature that subscribes to the “in death there is life” mantra, the flowering produces fruit, which produces seed, which starts the long process over again.
“It requires no care and makes a lovely, filtered screen,” says Jill. "[Though an evergreen, it acts] deciduous in our climate, losing its leaves in winter, which is something to bear in mind if you're using it as a screen."
Curiously, a neighboring stand of F. murieliae at Bedrock bloomed five years ago, in keeping with the outer time frame of a worldwide flowering that was taking place. The stand blooming now seemingly missed that beat, or else is a renegade -- a teenager perhaps, denying the will of the mother plant.
Another equally beautiful and hardy variety at Bedrock, Fargesia rufa, grows into large clumps (6-8 ft wide and 10 feet tall) with arching, umbrella-like stems. It tolerates cold to -15F, and prefers afternoon shade. Though deer resistant, both varieties are a favorite food of the China native, the giant panda.
In northeast India, however, bamboo blooming actually brings famine and death. Known as Mautam, the flowering of the species Melocanna baccifera every 45 to 50 years is followed by a plague of rats that gorge on the abundant fruit and quickly reproduce. Once the bamboos' offerings are exhausted, the rats leave the forests to forage on nearby maize and rice fields, as well as stored grain, resulting in heavy food loss and famine. This is not just the stuff of stories: The most recent flowering began in May 2004.
Melocanna baccifera aside, bamboo is highly life-affirming. Humans have been using it for centuries to make food and wine, medicine, building materials, furniture, cloth, paper, traditional Chinese instruments, basketwork, bowls, and other everyday necessities. In Japan, it’s associated with laughter and playfulness, possibly due to the sound that its leaves make on windy days, and its uses in traditional kite, toy, and craft making.
Like its gregarious bloom time and death, there is much about the plant that is both fascinating and ironic. It’s also endangered, with more than half of the world’s 1,200 woody species threatened with extinction. I encourage you learn more about it and perhaps even invite this wild and ancient specimen into your garden...and life. Either way, come see it at Bedrock Gardens before it’s gone.