Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Baby blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’)

If I had to pick one favorite bamboo, this would be it. At least at the moment. There are so many beautiful species, it’s hard not to switch allegiance now and then. Heather shakes her head when I wax poetic about these lovely grasses of the Poaceae family so I can only imagine what people might think who are complete bamboo agnostics or atheists.

Many common bamboos have an accepted common name—arrow bamboo for Pseudosasa japonica, black bamboo for Phyllostachys nigra, fountain bamboo for Fargesia nitida—but far more species either have no English name or one that is either too vague or varies from grower to grower and hence is not very useful. People have asked me if I that plant in my front yard is a “giant timber bamboo”. Well, it—Bambusa oldhamii—is indeed a “giant timber bamboo”, but so are dozens or other related and unrelated species. This frequent confusion makes it hard to know whether you’re even talking about the same thing.That’s why Latin names are so important for bamboo—yes, they are hard to pronounce and memorize, but they do uniquely identify each species.

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New branch on Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’

My beloved Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ suffers from the same affliction. Some vendors call it “baby blue bamboo” (presumably because its larger sibling, Bambusa chungii, is called “blue bamboo”), others call it “Barbie bamboo”. Even those using the Latin name can’t agree on the spelling of the subspecies: ‘Barbellata’, ‘Barbalata’ or ‘Barballata’. Confusion reins supreme, and I can totally understand why people who aren’t into bamboo run away screaming or tear their hair out.

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Developing branch

None of these nomenclatural challenges take away from the beauty of this bamboo. (Click here to see a nice photo on Beautifulbamboo.com.) Bambusa chungii is member of the bambusa species, a tropical and subtropical genus of clumping bamboos, many of which are quite large. Bambusa chungii is native to Southern China and wasn’t introduced into the United States until the early 1990s so it’s still fairly uncommon. It loves the sun and heat, and is hardy to +21°F. Anything colder for extended periods of time will kill first the leaves, then the culms and eventually the underground parts of the plant. That’s not usually a problem where we live since we rarely drop below +28°F.

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Culms with “bloom”

New culms (“canes”) are covered with a white powdery substance called “bloom”, which gives the plant its blue appearance. The regular Bambusa chungii quickly grows to 30 feet with 2 inch diameter culms. 2 inches may not sound like much but try to envision it—that’s a pretty thick culm! ‘Barbellata’ is a smaller sibling and grows to about 2/3rd that size, i.e. somewhere around 20 feet, with culms in the 1.5 inch range. According to what I was able to glean on Bambooweb.com, it forms a significantly tighter clump than the regular chungii and is therefore better suited to smaller gardens.

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New culm with hairy culm sheath;
the culm sheath falls away as the branches develop

I decided in March that I had to have a Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ for our front yard but I had the hardest time finding a vendor in California that would actually ship a plant. Several of the Southern California vendors had them but weren’t set up for mail order. One vendor was willing to ship but only had a 15-gallon plant which would have been to large to transport via common carrier like UPS. I eventually bought a 3-gallon plant from Tropical Bamboo Nursery & Gardens in Florida—my first mail-order purchase of a bamboo. The plant was not cheap, and neither was shipping. It wasn’t very large either but it looked healthy. I planted it in our front yard in early April. It had about a dozen wispy culms, the largest of which was the thickness of a pencil, maybe a quarter of an inch.

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Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ on April 6th, 2010

After just a couple of months in the ground, it produced the first new shoots, noticeably thicker in diameter than the original ones. They were still not quite strong enough to hold up the weight of the luxurious foliage so they too flopped over eventually. Throughout the summer, new shoots appeared at irregular intervals—sometimes two new ones in a week, then nothing for a month.

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Same plant in October

At the end of September, six months after planting, it had 25 culms, the largest of which was 7/8th inch in diameter. At that point, I would have thought that growth was over for the year, but then came a heat wave in early October that took us to 96°F and above for several days in a row. I don’t know if it’s normal behavior or if it confused my ‘Barbellata’ but just this morning I noticed two new shoots. This puts the current tally at 27 culms, compared to the original 12. This thing is a culm-producing machine! All culms are still in a tight clump, about 1 foot across. I can’t wait to see what kind of development next year brings!

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New shoots on October 19th, 2010

Why is it my favorite bamboo at the moment? I’d have to say it’s the abundance of new culms and the tropical-looking leaves. My plant is still a young ‘un but I see a great future for it in our front yard.

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New leaves

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3 comments:

  1. I am curious about trying this too - I ordered a plant from the same place as you did as it seemed the only option. I also ordered a Bambusa Lako a black timber species from Timor. I am in zone 9b but in Richmond and so it is much cooler here year round. I am not sure if these tropicals will like it here but I have to try. Thanks so much for your blog as I really didn't see anyone else growing these sp. in 9b norcal.

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  2. Cindy, I still love my Barbellata and it's made it through the winter just fine. I think our low was 26°F.

    I've always wanted a Bambusa lako--in my book it's the most beautiful clumping bamboo in existence--but it's a bit more frost-sensitive than Bambusa chungii and I haven't wanted to risk it here.

    I think you'll be just fine in Richmond. You have the moderating influence of San Francisco Bay which should prevent temperatures from going much below freezing. I'm surprised you're not in zone 10 like SF. Actually, according to Plant Maps, you are in zone 10a. Check it out here.

    Please keep me posted on how things go with your new bamboos.

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  3. My b. chungii is confirmed shipping now. We'll know in a few months if it's a culm producing machine like yours, although I'm probably not going to put it into the ground right away (have to clear out an old boxwood hedge first).

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