Bamboo Plants: Facts, Growing Tips, Uses

Plus Information on Impostors

Looking up through a grove of tall bamboo plants.
Bamboo forms forests in the tropics. In the North, people use it often as a privacy screen. Marser/Getty Images

A reader who lives in a cold climate asked the following question regarding bamboo plants:

"I recently moved into an old farmhouse that is near a main road and I'm looking for natural ways to buffer the noise from passing traffic. I've heard bamboo is good, but I'm wondering if you have any suggestions?"

This reader represents a growing part of the population in cooler regions of the globe interested in growing a plant more often associated with tropical and sub-tropical areas.

This series of answers to frequently asked questions about bamboo plants may pique your interest even if you are not planning on growing bamboo plants. For, besides questions about growing them, you will also learn such facts as how botanists classify them, how you should go about eradicating them if they are unwanted on your property, and what plants masquerade as types of bamboo -- but really are not.

We will begin with some basic facts about bamboo plants, answering common questions about them in some detail. The article will conclude with links to articles that answer some lingering questions that you may have on the subject.

What Is Bamboo?

Although you might not know it from the larger members of this group of plants, the bamboos are really grasses. That is, they belong to the large Poaceae plant family.

Yes, given the height of some bamboos (over 100 feet tall), the answer to the question, What is bamboo?

may be somewhat surprising. But the bamboos are, in fact, classified as woodyevergreenperennial grasses.

Specifically, bamboo constitutes a subfamily of the grass family: Bambusoideae. This subfamily can further be broken down into three parts:

  1. Tropical woody bamboos (Bambuseae)
  2. Temperate woody bamboos (Arundinarieae; two genera of this group are discussed below in the section on cold-hardy bamboo, namely, Fargesia and Phyllostachys)
  1. Herbaceous bamboos (Olyreae)

Geographically, bamboos are most closely associated with the Orient, sub-Saharan Africa and Central and South America. Botanically, a great number of the bamboos can easily be recognized by their prominent, hollow stems, known as "culms," punctuated at intervals by nodes. We can also break down the bamboos into two other classifications: running bamboos and clumping bamboos (see below). 

What Are the Uses for Bamboo?

The uses for bamboo plants are as diverse as the regions they inhabit. To name just a few uses, bamboo has been used:

  • In construction (for example, in bamboo fences).
  • As an ingredient in cuisine (for example, bamboo shoots in Chinese food).
  • As a source of food for wildlife: Humans aren't alone in their consumption of bamboo; panda bear fans know it as the primary food source for giant pandas.
  • In landscaping: Uses for bamboo include as a hedge (for privacy screens) and as a specimen plant. You will learn more about bamboo privacy screens in a later FAQ.

    I Want to Grow Bamboo but I'm Afraid It Will Spread. How Can I Contain It?

    If you will be growing a clumping variety (see below), then you have nothing to worry about. But what if you will be growing one of the invasive types? One way to play it safe when growing such bamboo plants is by containing them through the use of bamboo barriers. That is, many people eager to grow bamboo but worried about its potential to spread engage in some preventive maintenance before planting. They sink 40 mil. plastic barriers into the ground all around the bamboo plants, effectively "fencing" them in. Bamboo barriers should run 30 inches deep; also make sure a couple of inches of bamboo barrier extend above the surface.

    Are There Any Cold-Hardy Bamboo Plants?

    Yes, there are. It's all about making proper plant-selection choices. That is, to grow bamboo successfully in northern climates, you need to do your homework and find one of the truly cold-hardy bamboo plants. There are some kinds that will survive a winter as far north as USDA cold-hardiness zone 5. The figures used below come courtesy of Bamboo Garden.

    Note that the inclusion of a plant on this list does not mean that the plant's above-ground growth will necessarily survive the sub-zero temperatures of winter. But the roots will, in fact, survive. In other words, these plants that are evergreens in their native lands will act as herbaceous perennials in a cold climate.

    Plants that hail from warmer climates often have the ability to survive in colder climates, but the trade-off is that they behave differently than they do back home. Another example is crepe myrtle, which is a tree when growing in a Southern climate, but which Northerners have to settle for growing as an herbaceous perennial or as a shrub.

    The Fargesias are among the most cold-hardy bamboo plants. The following are some examples. The numbers in parentheses indicate the lowest temperature (Fahrenheit) that they can survive; use this number to rank the plants for cold-hardiness:

    1. Fargesia dracocephala: (-10F). Grows to 8-12 feet in height.
    2. Fargesia nitida: (-20F). Grows to 12 feet in height.
    3. Fargesia robusta: (0 degrees F). Grows to 15 feet in height.
    4. Fargesia rufa Green Panda™: (-15F). Grows to 8 feet in height.
    5. Fargesia murielae: (-20F). 10-14 tall.
    6. Fargesia denudata (-10F). Grows to 15 feet tall.

    A favorite type of Fargesia is F. rufa Green Panda™, because it stays relatively compact.

    The Phyllostachys group of bamboo plants is also quite hardy. Here are some cold-hardy examples from that genus:

    1. Phyllostachys nuda: (-10F). Usually 25-30 feet tall.
    2. Phyllostachys bissetii: (-10F). Typically 20-25 feet tall.
    3. Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Yellow Groove': (-10F). 30 feet.
    4. Phyllostachys manii 'Decora': (-10F). 30-35 feet.

    A great choice from the Phyllostachys genus is P. manii 'Decora,' which is also known as "Beautiful Bamboo." Its young shoots have such colorful sheaths on its stalks that they put you in mind of a rainbow, rather like the foliage on Tropicanna canna.

    Is "Mexican Bamboo" a True Bamboo?

    This FAQ and the two that follow it introduce the reader to the impostors, that is, plants that may look like  bamboo and/or have "bamboo" in one of their common names, but that are not true members of the Bambusoideae subfamily of plants.

    You may have heard of "Mexican bamboo." But don't be fooled: this plant is not really a bamboo, at all. Mexican bamboo is so called because of its hollow stalks, punctuated at intervals by horizontal joints (or "nodes") giving it the appearance of true bamboo. This weed, which is notoriously difficult to eradicate, is more commonly known as "Japanese knotweed" (Polygonum cuspidatum).

    Is "Heavenly Bamboo" a True Bamboo?

    No, this plant is another bamboo impostor. "Heavenly bamboo" is simply a nickname for nandina (Nandina domestica). Nandina is an evergreen shrub in planting zones 6-10 and reaches about 8 feet in height (although dwarf nandinas do exist). It is shade-tolerant and even profits from some afternoon shade at the warmer end of its range.

    Its stems resemble bamboo (thus the nickname), but it is not a true bamboo. You may not see any resemblance to Japanese barberry, but the plant is actually in the barberry family. Nandina produces white or pinkish blossoms that occur in terminal clusters. During the fall, heavenly bamboo displays red fall foliage; in winter, it bears red berries. This attractive specimen can sometimes be an invasive plant outside its native range (East Asia).

    Is "Lucky Bamboo" a True Bamboo?

    No, the association with good fortune that gives so-called "lucky bamboo" its name derives from the use of the plant in Feng Shui. The plant's real name is Dracaena sanderiana. Afficionados of Feng Shui use it as a houseplant, and it is often grown hydroponically: that is, in a vase with decorative pebbles and water (no soil).

    Even those not interested in Feng Shui will find lucky bamboo to be a desirable specimen for gardening indoors. Lucky bamboo is relatively easy to care for and has fascinating corkscrew-shaped stems.

    The topic of bamboo is vast and complex, so you probably have more questions. The following links will take you to articles that answer four of the most pressing questions that homeowners have:

    1. What's the Difference Between Running Bamboo Plants and Clumping Bamboo Plants?
    2. How Do You Grow Bamboo Plants?
    3. Do Bamboo Plants Make Good Privacy Screens?
    4. How Do You Eradicate Bamboo Plants Without Using Herbicides?