Taming Alphonse Karr bamboo

Alphonse Karr (Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’) is one of the most carefree and beautiful clumping bamboos for milder climates (zone 8 and up). As people are realizing they can enjoy the beauty of bamboo even in a small yard without having to deal with the invasiveness typical of running bamboos, Alphonse Karr is finding its way into more and more gardens. All larger nurseries in the Sacramento area now carry at least a few clumping bamboos, and Alphonse Karr is usually one of them. Like most bamboos of the (sub)tropical genus Bambusa, it’s fairly easy to propagate and hence available at a reasonable price.

In February 2010, I bought a large division of Alphonse Karr from a local gardener. He had topped it pretty severely—there were virtually no branches left—but just six months later it produced more than a dozen culms close to ½” in diameter.

Alphonse Karr in February 2010
Alphonse Karr in September 2010

In March of 2010 I bought a Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’). It was a small plant with short wispy culms, and I planted it about five feet from the Alphonse Karr. My goal was to create a lush screen of contrasting culm colors and leaf sizes that would give our front yard some privacy from the street, not to mention a tropical look.

Three clumping bamboos near the gate to our front yard, April 2010

The growth of the Baby Blue bamboo has been astounding--this year we have culms that are close to 1” in diameter. While the plant still forms a tight clump at the base, its culms are beginning to merge with those from the Alphonse Karr next to it.

110704_Bambusa_Barbellata AlphonseKarr_labeled
Baby Blue (left) and Alphonse Karr (right, behind gate) in early July 2011

Last year I made an admittedly half-hearted and naïve attempt to keep the Alphonse Karr in its corner by placing a large round of wood right next to the base of the plant, hoping it would get the message and grow towards the right where there is plenty of room. Needless to say it didn’t listen to me and popped out what I thought were two shoots right under my makeshift barrier.

Errant shoots/culms on July 15
Errant shoots/culms on July 22

Initially I was inclined to just let them be, especially since they started to right themselves after a few days, but then I decided to do the smart thing and remove them. Snap, a second later the new culms were gone—being immature, they broke off instantly, saving myself the trouble of resorting to a spade or saw.

As it turns out, there were three new culms under the round of wood; one hadn’t pushed its way out yet. Taking out what were some of the thickest culms this specimen had yet produced did produce a bang of mental pain, but I thought it’s better to act now to avoid an ugly mess later on.

Alphonse Karr after removing the errant shoots
Alphonse Karr in July 2011 (behind gate)

The point I’m trying to make is this: Don’t hesitate to remove bamboo shoots or culms if they pop up in places where you don’t want them. You are in control and have the ability to steer your bamboo in the direction you want it to go. If you do a little bit of maintenance and shaping every now and then, you won’t end up dealing with an unkempt and overgrown clump of bamboo later on—and you save yourself a lot of work in the process.

Note to myself: Replace the round of wood with a more suitable barrier to prevent culms from growing towards the Baby Blue bamboo. Apparently, metal flashing weighed down with concrete blocks or paving stones is a good way to manage the growth of clumping bamboo—click here for more information about this technique. I will give it a try very soon.

The three fat culms I removed—almost too pretty to throw away
I love the striping

We have another clump of Alphonse Karr in the backyard behind an umbrella clothesline. When I planted it two years ago, my wife made it clear to me that I would have to keep the culms away from the clothesline. Well, you can imagine what happened. New culms kept popping up, and I let them be. Now at least three culms regularly get entangled in the clothesline, and even I realize that something needs to be done about it. I’m still debating whether to remove the offending culms altogether (they’re so nice, the very thought hurts) or top them so they’re shorter than the clotheslines. I’ll probably start out with the latter to see how it goes. I’m still hoping the clothesline will magically get taller or move to a different spot in the yard :-).

Alphonse Karr getting entangled in clothesline…
…as can be seen here


  1. And I thought Alphonse Karr was well behaved already :) I totally agree about not being hesitant in removing errant culms, shoots, and rhizomes. Bamboos are tough buggers and can take this often perceived cruel treatment, and is downright necessary to keep them in check.

    As for the clothesline, move it to a different spot I'd say :)

  2. Mark and Gaz, the Alphonse Karr is not a rogue by any means. However, since it does seem to form a more open clump than other bambusas, I should have allowed more room for expansion than I did when I originally planted it. Because of that I need to be much more decisive in keeping the clump well trimmed.

    In general, I think bamboo looks better when pruned/thinned/shaped rather than left to its own devices, especially in smaller gardens. If you have a large yard, by all means, let it do its thing because space isn't an issue.

  3. P.S. Consider the clothesline a stationary object that cannot be moved :-).

  4. Tying the leaning culms up a bit wouldn't do it?

  5. Alan, the culms facing the clothesline are already tied back. I need to bite the bullet and remove some culms. There, I've said it :-).

  6. Maybe you can propagate them. If you have to remove anything substantial perhaps powder with rooting hormone and put them in a planter. Tjhe loss amy pay off.

  7. Did you find pulling culms of Alphose Karr an effective method of controlling growth? My Alphose Karr hedge has grown within 16 inches of a fence. It will be in the neighbors yard soon. I was considering having it killed off and replaced with trees. But pulling out culms would be better.


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