The national association says it is only a grass, but not many plants are looked at with heart pounding fear and trepidation, as bamboo. But it is that grass element that caught us all by surprise last spring.
You see bamboo does bloom. It is not predictable and it is not necessarily something celebrated by horticulturists as maintenance will soon be required. Some countries even look at the bloom of bamboo as catastrophic.
Without getting into a lengthy dissertation on the bloom of bamboo I will tell you that only a portion of the three clumps on the farm bloomed, making it easy for us to remove as part of the required after-bloom maintenance. When the bloom started we were stunned as to what occurred next. It was an ornithological extravaganza.
The 18-foot tall bamboo bloomed for weeks. Some of the large grass seeds remained on the bamboo canes others were sloughed off to the ground. The result of all of this however was a bird feeding frenzy.
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Indio buntings, painted buntings, blue grosbeaks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, eastern towhees, gray catbirds and cardinals all kept us thrilled. In other places they go to great lengths to keep birds from getting the seeds.
This is an occurrence where naturalists and horticulturists stand together in time, awed and amazed.
To be honest I would love to have more bamboo blooming next season although I would hate to see an entire clump of our historic bamboo be lost to such an event. For instance, our clump of Chinese Goddess bamboo has been right there in place since 1928.
Right now like some naturalist nerds we are rejoicing thanks to some hedge bamboo. Since January 8, we have been playing host to a Wilson’s warbler that is most rare in our area. There are also blue-headed vireos, black and white warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, wren’s and others darting in and out of the bamboo snagging low flying insects.
Bamboo and birds is a pairing most of us have never considered. Maybe it is like the icing on the cake or a plant with added benefits. For the Japanese Garden, or Tropical Garden, however, no plant can lend the look and texture of the bamboo.
As a screen, it is one of the best. If you need a groundcover that is two to four feet in height you can’t beat bamboo. One look at bamboo and you get a sense of being in the presence of a plant of rare beauty, both exotic and also foreign.
The Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens got its start in 1919 as a USDA Plant Introduction Station because of bamboo. We still maintain a sizeable collection including Mrs. Miller’s giant timber bamboo she planted on the farm in 1890.
Bamboo is native to Asia, Africa and even the Americas. There are species of bamboo that can be grown from zones 5 to the tropics. Just like the American Bamboo Association says it is just a grass. In fact they can be small dwarf grasses reaching only a foot in height or very large ones reaching 120 feet tall. Some are capable of putting on an incredible display of growth of over three feet per day.
Just think you can invite friends and guests over to have barbeque and watch the bamboo grow, or if you are really lucky, do some spectacular bird watching.
Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.” Follow him at: @CGBGgardenguru.