While bamboo is often mistaken for a tree because of its tall growth, it is actually a member of the true grass family Poaceae. Many of the 1,400 species of bamboo are woody grasses with a wide array of uses and applications. Bamboo is an eco-friendly, sustainable material used in construction, furniture, biofuel, pulp, paper, and food (for people, not just for pandas!). The list of bamboo applications is far longer than can be listed here.
Along with these vital uses for bamboo, these grasses are also popular in ornamental gardens. With over 1,400 bamboo species, choosing the right ones for your Alabama garden can be daunting, to say the least. But there is no need to feel bamboo-zled! Let’s cut through all the confusion and explore some of the very best bamboo varieties to grow in the Yellowhammer State.
When choosing the right bamboo for your landscape, there are a couple of things that you need to know upfront: the two major categories of bamboo and the plant hardiness zone where you live.
Clumping vs. Running Bamboo
While there are 1,400 bamboo species, they are generally divided into just two categories: clumpers and runners.
Around two-thirds of bamboo species are running bamboos (monopodial or leptomorph). These species normally grow with astounding speed. The complex, horizontal root system (rhizomes) spreads very quickly. The average running bamboo can spread three to five feet per year on average, but some species can spread as much as 10-15 feet per year. The spread of some types of running bamboo are so aggressive that they are classified as an invasive species in certain localities. It is imperative that gardeners know their local laws before planting these runners. For example, this warning has been issued by the Alabama Forestry Commission about one type of running bamboo.
There are far fewer clumping bamboos (sympodial or pachymorph) than running bamboos, but there are still plenty to choose from. Clumpers have a short root structure that cannot expand more than a few inches per year. While clumping varieties spread much more slowly than runners, clumpers are persistent in their growth. Make sure they have space to grow. When planted in confined spaces, the roots can break through structures such as fences, retaining walls, and sidewalks.
Due to the possible invasiveness of runners, clumping bamboo is recommended in most situations, especially for bamboo novices. We will not include running bamboo in our recommendations below. It doesn’t mean you can’t grow it, but much research will be needed to ensure you don’t end up with out-of-control bamboo, furious neighbors, and even possible legal trouble.
Know Your Plant Hardiness Zone
Alabama’s USDA plant hardiness zones range from Zone 7a in a few small pockets of the northeast to Zone 9a in the southeastern and southwestern corners of the state. The majority of Alabama falls into Zones 7b-8b. This climate range isn’t appropriate for many types of bamboo. Choosing a variety ill-suited for your zone will invite frustration and, ultimately, failure. But take heart, Alabama gardeners! There are some bamboo varieties that will thrive in your landscape.
Here are four bamboo varieties that are perfectly suited for Alabama. We have included the most-used common names for the bamboo varieties listed below, but common bamboo names aren’t standardized. They vary from region to region, and even from retailer to retailer. When in doubt, double-check the scientific name before making a purchase. This will ensure you are receiving the appropriate bamboo variety.
Weaver’s Bamboo (Bambusa textilis)
This clumping bamboo is hardy for Zones 7-9, meaning every Alabama gardener can grow it successfully. As its common name suggests, this bamboo is a superb material for basket or furniture weaving, along with many other crafty options.
As an ornamental, weaver’s bamboo features greenish-blue culms with continuous white rings developing at the nodes. This bamboo also creates an excellent privacy screen. Weaver’s bamboo is pest and deer-resistant. In a state with 1.75 million deer, this is music to the ears of Alabama bamboo growers.
There are several different cultivars of Bambusa textilis. The most common may be Slender Weaver’s Bamboo (Bambusa textilis var. gracilis). It maxes out around 25 feet. That is perfect privacy growth for a two-story house.
If you’re looking for something smaller, the Dwarf variety (Bambusa textilis ‘Dwarf’) is the smallest of the textilis cultivars, only growing to a maximum height of around 18-20 feet. The Dwarf variety is a tropical bamboo and isn’t recommended for Zone 7, though. Northern Alabama gardeners should probably skip this cultivar.
If you want to go as far as you can in the other direction, the Giant Weaver (Bambusa textilis ‘Kanapaha’) is the largest of the textilis bamboos, growing up to 50 feet tall.
Fargesia Robusta is a clumping bamboo that is tall and upright, creating a narrow screen. It features light green culms with darker green foliage. The culm sheaths persist and turn almost white, which gives this bamboo a lovely checkerboard appearance in the summer.
The Fargesia Robusta bamboos include a number of cultivars, most of which will grow from 12-15 feet tall. These bamboos are hardy from Zones 7-9, so they are also appropriate for all Alabama bamboo growers.
Some of the Fargesia Robusta cultivars include the Campell, Pingwu, Wolong, and Wenchuan.
The Campell variety features a tighter clumping habit and smaller leaves than the others, such as the Pingwu. The Wolong and Wenchuan varieties have larger leaves and a glossier look.
Golden Goddess Bamboo (Bambusa multiplex ‘Golden Goddess’)
This multiplex bamboo is hardy for Zones 8-10, making it a great option for landscapes for much of the state. Roughly speaking, if you live south of Tuscaloosa, this bamboo would likely grow well for you.
This clumping bamboo remains much smaller than many other varieties, topping out around six to eight feet tall. At maturity, it features a graceful arch that brings an exotic, tropical feel to your garden.
Seabreeze Bamboo (Bambusa Malingensis)
Seabreeze bamboo is hardy in Zones 9a-11, so most Alabama gardeners should skip this one. However, for gardeners in the extreme southern corners of the state, including the Gulf coast, seabreeze bamboo is one of the best options for your gardens and landscapes.
This bamboo is a tight, clumping bamboo with small green leaves. This bamboo grows tall, reaching heights of around 40 feet. It features an umbrella-shaped arch at maturity. It is relatively fast-growing among the clumping bamboos and can provide a natural privacy screen within a year or so.
The seabreeze bamboo variety is also tough. It can withstand both flooding and drought conditions. This clumper can also stand up to high winds and is even salt-tolerant, for those gardeners who live on the coast.
Sunlight needs vary between the many different types of bamboo, so be sure to check the specific variety’s needs. However, all bamboos thrive with regular watering. Water newly-planted bamboo daily until they are established. However, generous watering does not mean waterlogging. Most bamboo varieties will struggle in standing water. Add two to three inches of mulch when planting new bamboo. This will keep the soil moist without being waterlogged.
Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on earth. Many varieties reach maturity very quickly, but again, it varies between the many different types of bamboo. Bamboo uses a lot of nutrients in this famously-fast growth. A slow-release fertilizer can help your bamboo thrive. A 10-5-5 fertilizer is a good choice. Fertilize your bamboo in early spring and then again in the summer.
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