Bamboos at the San Diego Botanic Garden

The San Diego Botanic Garden (SDBG) has the largest public bamboo collection in the United States, comprising 121 taxa from Asia, South Africa and even Africa. In January 2014, it received accreditation by the North American Plant Collections Consortium as a National Collection.


This strong focus on bamboo at San Diego Botanic Garden (known as Quail Botanical Gardens prior to 2009) is no coincidence. In 1979, Richard Haubrich, a professor of geophysics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla and a member of the board of directors of the garden, founded the American Bamboo Society (ABS) at Quail. At that time, only two bamboos existed at the garden: Bambusa oldhamii and Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’ (amusingly, I have these two species in my own front yard). Soon many additional bamboos were planted, and Haubrich obtained a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to import bamboos. Today, the quarantine greenhouse at the SDBG, operated by the ABS, is one of only four in the country. Through these government-mandated quarantine facilities, the ABS has introduced many new bamboos species into the U.S.


Dendrocalamus giganteus at the entrance to the Bamboo Garden. According to the plaque you see below, this bamboo started to flower in 2008 and eventually died (as with agaves, flowering is usually a terminal event for bamboos).

Fellow bamboo enthusiast and photographer Eric Fandel from Germany had highly recommended the SDBG collection because of the many tropical and subtropical clumping bamboos that thrive in Encinitas’ virtually frost-free climate. Eric was right on. The SDBG Bamboo Garden is a truly special place. I was like a kid in a candy store, walking around and taking photos. I hope the images in this post give you an idea of the beauty of these giant grasses.


Even dead the remaining canes of Dendrocalamus giganteus look magnificent



“Shime: Bamboo Holds the Earth Together” by Stephen Glassman


Green canopy


Seen on the right in the photo above, painted bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris ‘Vitttata’) is one of the most commonly planted bamboos in the frost-free climates


It’s easy to see why


Bambusa vulgaris ‘Vitttata’


Bambusa beecheyana is another subtropical clumper than can grow to massive proportions (up to 50 ft. tall with culms up to 5 in. in diameter). The plant at the SDBG was maybe 2/3 of that.


Bambusa tulda, or Indian timber bamboo, is important for the paper pulp industry in India

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Bambusas membranacea is also used for paper pulp


Himalayacalamus porcatus is a tight clumper with light green canes covered with a white powder—a very attractive species


Himalayacalamus porcatus


Thyrsostachys siamensis or monastery bamboo. As its common name already suggests, it’s frequently planted around monasteries in Thailand.


Borinda fungosa, appearing much more yellow the plant in our backyard


Dendrocalamus jianshuiensis, one of my favorites at the SDBG


Dendrocalamus jianshuiensis

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Bambusa dolichoclada ‘Stripe’


Phyllostachys vivax, one of the few running bamboos I saw at the SDBG. This stand is beautifully maintained and has that airy feel I love about bamboo.


Phyllostachys vivax


Cut canes ready for some project


I have no idea what they will be used for, and there was nobody around to ask


Bambusa emeiensis ‘Viridiflavus’

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Dendrocalamus minor ‘Amoenus’, also known under the poetic name “angel mist bamboo”


Dendrocalamus minor ‘Amoenus’


Gigantochloa apus. It can get to 60 ft. in SE Asia. This plant must be a recent addition because it’s significantly smaller.


Gigantochloa atroviolacea, one of several “black” tropical clumpers. Apparently drier conditions bring out the black in the culms.

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Dendrocalamus asper ‘Betung Hitam’ is the largest of the tropical “black” bamboos. Given enough water and heat, it grows to 100 ft. with culms 10-12 inches (!) in diameter. Now THAT would be a sight to see! While large, the specimen at the SDBG was definitely not in that league. Clearly, it isn’t getting the water it wants.


Dendrocalamus asper ‘Betung Hitam’

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Dendrocalamus asper ‘Betung Hitam’


Dendrocalamus asper ‘Betung Hitam’

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Dendrocalamus giganteus, I believe (I couldn’t find a tag)

The Bamboo Garden isn’t the only place at the SDBG where you can see bamboos. Several South American species are growing on the edge of the South American Desert Garden.


Chusquea mimosa ‘Australis’


Chusquea mimosa ‘Australis’


Chusquea mimosa ‘Australis’


Chusquea circinata demonstrating what happens when a bamboo flowers

The last bamboo I want to show you is Guadua angustifolia. It’s the first time I’ve seen a guadua outside of books or web sites.

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Guadua angustifolia growing on the sunny edge of the Tropical Rain Forest Garden

While the specimen at the SDBG isn’t particularly impressive, Guadua angustifolia grows to 100 ft. in its native habitat (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador), with a culm diameter up to 10 inches. Its importance as a building material in South America cannot be overstated. Economically, it’s to South America what moso (Phyllostachys edulis) is to China (if you have any kind of bamboo product from China, such as bamboo flooring, it’s made from moso).

This page describes the impressive properties of Guadua angustifolia.

This article is a good introduction to the architecture of Simón Vélez, the Colombian architect who has pioneered the use of guadua as a construction material that rivals steel for strength. Also check out photos of his projects. I cannot overemphasize what a genius Vélez is.

One final note: Even though Encinitas rarely receives frost and hence allows the cultivation of tender tropical bamboo species, its average precipitation is only 16 inches—not nearly enough to sustain bamboos on rainfall alone. I don’t know how often or how much the plants in the Bamboo Garden are watered, but it must be fairly regularly. While I’m glad this bamboo collection exists and I hope it will continue to thrive, I will admit that I felt vaguely uncomfortable walking through a “forest” of plants that need so much water when California is in the throes of an unprecedented drought. Many gardeners and plant lovers in California are conflicted about where water should go, and I would lie if I said I had an easy answer. Just some food for thought as I wrap up this post.

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  1. They do look spectacular like that, majestic and with huge culms. Irrigation lies somewhere along the way, deep within it's thick mulch of bamboo leaves.

    1. Yes, the dropped leaves really help. That's how my own bamboos have been able to survive.

  2. As I walked through the garden with you I was wondering about water, no easy answers indeed. I wonder if the cut sections will be used as edging "fence?" Seeing their hollow ends I as reminded of my desire to edge with tubes and plant them up with succulents.

    1. Good guess. In a garden that large, I'm sure they're able to reuse a lot of the resources produced by plants.

  3. Interesting and informative--bamboo is one type of plant I"m not particularly familiar with. Last I was there it appeared the bamboo gets just enough water to survive and no more. A rainy winter, should we ever get one again, might produce dramatic improvement.

    1. I bet you're right. I wonder how botanical gardens are treated under the new water conservation mandate. Are they considered farmers? Or institutional users?

      If it were possible, I'd be happy to give up some of my own water so botanical gardens can keep their plants alive.

  4. What a treasure! Bamboo is such a beautiful group of giant grasses! Pray tell, when will Phyllostachys vivax bloom again? I've a love hate relationship with mine that was planted 17 years ago before I knew about barriers. It's trying to take over the world. While I'm always thinning and digging out runners where I don't want them, I don't have the heart to get rid of the whole grove but if it should bloom and die, why then I could start again, this time with a barrier.

    1. LOL, I like your thinking! Apparently Phyllostachys vivax flowered in the late 60s, at least in China. While it's impossible to predict when the next gregarious flowering will be, it could be soon.

  5. Nice to see Glassman's work again. His studio was on the Venice Garden tour one year. Yes, one wonders what will happen to "amenities" like bamboo collections under the coming water restrictions

    1. Good question. I bet botanical gardens are trying to figure that out themselves.

  6. I would love to see a 100-foot-tall bamboo! Nice tour - thanks!


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