Sunday, November 14, 2010

Visit to Sacramento Zoo

Near record-breaking temperatures today—78°F this afternoon. Stunning fall weather, so we decided to go to the Sacramento Zoo. It’s located next to Land Park, probably the most beautiful park in the entire Sacramento metro area. Large old trees, lawns, ponds; tranquil, elegant and stately. As we walked from our car through the park, leaves were fluttering from the towering old trees, rustling merrily as the wind chased them along the walkways. Bursts of yellow and red foliage against the blue sky. The laughter of children and the chirping of birds. A picture postcard of a day.

I love zoos not only for the animals but also for the plants and landscaping. Every zoo I’ve ever been to has interesting plants. The Sacramento Zoo is not exception. In fact, it has a lot of mature bamboo in many different places. Unfortunately, as is often the case in zoos, plants are either labeled sparsely or not at all.

I was able to recognize black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra), which is easy to do because the culms are, well, black. The bamboo with the thickest culms is, I believe, either Phyllostachys vivax or Phyllostachys bambusoides. The bamboo with the compressed internodes is golden bamboo, Phyllostachys aurea—a misnomer if ever there was one because it is almost always green instead of golden.

But I don’t want this post to be a tutorial of all the plants I saw at the zoo, but rather a collection of images that hopefully will brighten your day like going to the zoo today brightened mine.








101114_goldenbamboo_culm 101114_culms_compressed1


 101114_blackbamboo_closeup 101114_blackbamboo_closeup2


101114_henon_culm4 101114_henon_culm2


101114_bamboo_graffiti1 101114_bamboo_graffiti2













Saturday, November 13, 2010

Saturday gardening chores

It was a beautiful fall day today with temperatures in the low 70s. I’m enjoying this weather so much, especially knowing that it won’t last. The list of gardening chores for today was short so I got them done pretty quickly.

First order of business was tying up the Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) that was flattened by last week’s winds. I ended up breaking a few stems when wrestling with the plant but I noticed that there’s quite a bit of basal growth already (i.e. new growth from the base of the plant). That means that even after I cut down the existing growth after the first frost, the plant will recover very quickly.

Mexican bush sage after I tied it to the fence

The next project was to move a small variegated bamboo, Sasaella masamuneana 'Albostriata', to a larger container. I bought this plant at the spring sale of the Northern California Chapter of the America Bamboo Society. The leaves were perfect then but now, at the end of a long summer and fall, they look a bit ratty. I will prune the plant in late January to stimulate new growth so it should look beautiful again in just a few months.

Sasaella masamuneana 'Albostriata' before, in smaller pot

I had expected to find the existing pot filled with roots and rhizomes but when I removed the plant, I saw very little new growth, just some extra feeder roots. The root ball looked to be the same size as when I planted it in May. That surprised me a little, considering that this particularly bamboo is considered to be a vigorous spreader. In any case, it will have room to grow in its new home. Provided I cut it back every winter, it should never grow taller than 2-3 feet—perfect for this large shallow bowl.

After, in a large clay bowl
Here you can see how much room for expansion there is

While puttering around, I noticed that the culms of our black bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra, had gotten noticeably darker in the last few weeks. I wonder if it’s from the recent rains, or from the lower temperatures, especially at night? The black bamboo at my in-laws’ house in the mountains seems to turn black much faster than ours here in the Sacramento Valley, so temperature could definitely be a factor.

(All culms on black bamboo start out green then gradually change color, first to a mottled brown and eventually to jet black. This process can take anywhere between 9 months and a couple of years. There are some varieties who turn black faster than others, and one variety called leopard or snakeskin bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra ‘Bory’, whose color remains a mottled brown.)

101113_nigra2 101113_nigra3
101113_nigra4 101113_nigra5
Culms of our black bamboo in various stages of darkening
At ground level, the culms seem to turn solid black faster than higher up

In the afternoon, my wife and I picked up two 2x2x6 ft. galvanized steel stock tanks from a farm supply store. They will go under the bay trees in our back yard where it’s impossible to plant in the ground because of the trees’ dense mat of roots close to the surface. I’m still working out which bamboos will go in these troughs so this project will take a while yet. More in a separate post.

Friday, November 12, 2010

New bamboo in my collection: Indocalamus tessellatus

Yesterday Sean Bigley aka Mad Man Bamboo and his family stopped by for a visit. While our wives and daughters did their thing, Sean and I checked out the progress on my bamboos, most of which came from his backyard nursery, and talked shop. On a “bamboo nut” scale from 1-10, Sean is close to a 10, but my wife would argue that I’m not far behind.

I’ve been to Sean’s house many times since my obsession with bamboo began about a year and a half ago so I have a good idea of what a given species will look like after being in the ground for a while. As a testament to the explosive growth of bamboo, many of my plants are beginning to resemble the mature specimens Sean has at his house, which is very gratifying to see. Soon I’ll be able to take divisions which I can then use to trade for—even more bamboo. When will it end? Probably when I’ve been swallowed up by my bamboo jungle, or killed by a bamboo shoot.

Sean was kind enough to bring over a new addition to my collection: Indocalamus tessellatus, a very hardy running bamboo that purportedly has the largest leaves of any bamboo in cultivation in the U.S. The leaves can be up to 24 in. long and 4 in. wide. The thin culms bend under the weight of the foliage, forming a tropical-looking mound. In China and Japan, the leaves are used to make mats and for wrapping food.

Indocalamus tessellatus in 5-gallon container

Since it’s a running bamboo, I will plant mine in a horse trough that will go under the bay trees where nothing much grows. This bamboo does very well in the shade, including low light situations, and will add an exotic look.

One particular energetic rhizome escaping through the drain hole in the container to form a new culm
Closeup of drain hole

Have I said that I love the leaves?

Very large leaves, even on this juvenile plant

Here are some good photos of mature specimens: and

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What’s so special about bamboo anyway?

Cousin S. recently asked what was so special about bamboo. I could simply say that I like the way it looks, but there’s so much more than that. A quick Google search will lead you to a treasure trove of information—more than you ever wanted to know, I guarantee you! I don’t want to duplicate what other people have already said more eloquently and convincingly than I could, but here are some of the major aspects that I find particularly intriguing, ranging from the objective to the purely subjective.

Environmental benefits

Bamboo releases 35% more oxygen into the air than a tree of similar size.

Bamboo is very efficient at removing CO2 from the air (a process called “carbon sequestration”); some species remove as much as 50,000 pounds per acre per year. Some scientists say that bamboo as a carbon sink can aid in reducing global warming.

Because of its dense network of rhizomes and roots, bamboo is ideally suited for erosion control, preventing runoff damage to fragile areas and retaining up to 100% more water in the watershed.

Superior building material

Bamboo has a tensile strength higher than many steel alloys, which makes it a superior material for home construction in many parts of the world, especially tropical regions where the culms (canes) of indigenous bamboos grow to a sizable diameter.

In Central and Latin America, Guadua angustifolia, which can grow to 70 ft. in height with 6” diameter culms, and other guadua species, are widely used as a building material. Guadua’s rot-resistance is superior even to hardwood, which makes it ideal for use in humid environments. Colombian architect Simón Vélez has gained an international reputation for building structures with guadua. This site contains many photos of bamboo buildings designed by Vélez.

In China, Phyllostachys edulis, the famed Moso bamboo, covers millions of acres and is used to make everything from tubing for aqueducts to bamboo flooring. Most, if not all, bamboo flooring sold in the U.S. is from Moso bamboo. If you’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you will remember the dance-like duel between two of the major characters in the tops of giant bamboo “trees”; that scene was filmed in the Moso forests of Anji, China.

Moso bamboo flooring in our house

Versatile landscaping plant

Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on earth. Some large species have been measured growing as much as 40 inches in a 24-hour period. This is a lovely piece of trivia but not really meaningful in concrete terms for most people. However, it is that potential for rapid growth that makes bamboo such a useful landscaping plant.

Case in point: Last winter the City of Davis removed a 40 ft. ornamental pear tree in our front yard because of mistletoe infestation that caused branches to fall off.

Bradford pear tree in front of our house before it was removed in January of 2010

All of a sudden we were faced with the loss of a major source of shade for our house. Planting another tree, even a fast-growing one, would have meant waiting 10+ for a significant amount of shade. Instead we decided to plant a giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) that has the potential to grow to 50 ft. in 5-7 years. In spite of its towering height, the base of the plant stays tight and compact—ideal for where we planted it.

Giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) after just 8 months in the ground

At the other end of the spectrum, there are many low-growing bamboos that make good groundcovers, especially in a larger yard where they can be given free reign. (In smaller yards care must be taken to confine energetic running species, otherwise they might stray from their intended planting area.)

Cultural benefits

In the West, bamboo is a novelty phenomenon. In Asia, it has been an integral part of everyday life for thousands of years. It is a major food source, is used to make medicine as well as paper, implements and tools of every description, and serves as inspiration for music, painting and poetry. Few other plants, if any, have been so intricately linked to the development of mankind throughout the ages. I find that to be both inspirational and humbling.


And finally, the most important—and most personal—aspect of all: I truly love the look of bamboo.

I love the way the leaves move in the breeze, and I love the many different colors the culms come in—green, gray, brown, red, yellow, black and shades in between. I love the sound of rustling leaves and clacking culms—if you’ve ever heard bamboo wind chimes, you know what I mean. I love how some culms are straight, presenting a very formal and almost regal look, while others arch gracefully under the weight of their green load, forming a protective canopy for the plants growing beneath. I love the atmosphere of faraway lands that bamboo imparts to our Western yard, allowing me to dream of exotic places I will never see. I love the physical plant that I can touch, and I love the emotions it invokes in me.

Bamboo makes me happy—what more could I ask?

101012_borinda_fungosa lantern
Chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa)
in our backyard

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bamboo videos

I’ve been wanting to post this for a while now. Today seems like a good day since I’ve been busy with work and haven’t had time for a longer entry.

These are bamboo-related videos that I find particularly interesting or useful.



Portrait of a woman growing bamboo in Bali (from CNN)


Visit to Bamboo Garden near Portland, OR


Garden Time TV: Visit to Bamboo Garden near Portland, OR


Garden Time TV: Visit to Tsugawa Nursery in Oregon; planting running bamboos


Efforts by Bamboo Revolution ( to launch a sustainable bamboo industry in the U.S.


Video about Booshoot Gardens, a tissue-culture lab dedicated to the rapid propagation of bamboo



Several interested videos on this topic can be found here.



Planting bamboo in a pot (audience: beginners). More bamboo-related videos for beginners by Expert Village can be found on YouTube. Experienced bamboo aficionados will groan at some of the information provided in these videos.


Good introduction to planting a bamboo in the ground


How to divide a clumping bamboo


How to prune a clumping bamboo


Winterizing bamboos

Monday, November 8, 2010

Autumn blues

This spring and summer our yard looked better than ever, maybe because many plants are now mature or maybe because we had a long spring and relatively mild summer. In fact, quite a few plants were still doing OK on as recently as last week. However, with the recent rains combined with intermittently strong winds and much lower nighttime temperatures, things are going downhill fast. Of course this doesn’t exactly come as a surprise considering the time of year but somehow I’m not mentally prepared to let go of the abundant beauty we enjoyed in 2010 and so I find myself in a bit of a funk today.

Salvias, echinaceas and coreopsis today
Same bed in July

My tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii) is definitely a goner. I still have no idea why it decided to just die!

Tower of jewels not long for this world

The wind knocked over some of my favorite cannas that I’d been trying to establish in a pretty inhospitable part of our yard. They don’t really get enough sun or water there so next year I’ll try something else in that spot.

Cannas after the wind had its way with them

I love caladiums, probably because they’re so short-lived in our climate and hence so special when they’re at their peak. Well, they are not at their peak any longer! Time to dig up the tubers and store them for next year.

Caladiums not enjoying the colder nighttime temperatures

Lavender is usually a very happy plant in our area. This one has been in the ground for four years and looked glorious all year (see 2nd photo below). Now, for some reason the middle part is dying. I’ll give it a radical pruning in a week or two to see if it will recover. Sometimes lavender just decides to die. I suspect it has to do with our clay soil even though I heavily amend it to improve drainage.

Lavender dying from the inside out
Happy in the summer (plant on the left)

This is the time of year that Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) really hits its stride. However, it is no match for strong winds. Even knocked over it’s still a bee magnet so I haven’t cut it back yet but I’ll have to do that soon because it’s blocking the sidewalk.

Mexican bush sage, flattened by the wind

Just recently I wrote a rather gushing piece about my farfugiums. I mentioned that last winter some critter—a rat was my guess—was eating my variegated farfugium. Well, the critter is back. It did horrible damage to my Farfugium japonicum 'Argenteum' and even attacked the leaves of my Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’.

Don’t think you can get away with it, maleficent creature of the night! I’m not going to take this lying down!

Update: Culprit caught on 11/14/10.

Chewed leaf on Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’

The time has definitely come to say goodbye to the denizens of the tropical bed in the front yard. The hidden gingers (curcumas), are usually the first to go. (Funny, they’re also some of the last to come up in early summer!) The butterfly gingers (hedychiums) and the elephant ears (colocasias) usually hang on until the first frost.

Hidden ginger (Curcuma petiolata) getting ready to hibernate

Memories of a time gone by: our tropical bed in its mid-summer glory.

Tropical bed with caladiums, elephant ears,
and various types of ginger

OK, enough of the autumn blues for today. There are good things happening, too, in our yard. I just noticed dozens of seedlings from a nigella (commonly known as Love-in-the-Mist) which itself arrived on the wind from somewhere else.

Love-in-the-Mist seedlings

And our Washington navel oranges are beginning to turn from green to orange. Still a month or six weeks to go before they’re ripe but they're looking so good already!

Washington navel oranges