Running Bamboo vs. Clumping Bamboo

Image of Fargesia 'Rufa,' a clumping bamboo.
Fargesia 'Rufa' Green Panda™ is a clumping bamboo. David Beaulieu

There are two basic categories of bamboo plants commonly used in home landscapes: running bamboos and clumping bamboos. You may have heard that running bamboo should be avoided, and, for most gardeners, this is good advice. Simply put, running bamboo spreads much wider and faster than clumping bamboo, so much so that it is considered an invasive plant. There are ways to contain running bamboo, as well as clumping bamboo, which also spreads, but unless running bamboo's aggressive growth habit can be put to good use, it's best to stick with one of the clumping types.

The Rhizomes Make the Difference

All bamboos spread via rhizomes, stem-like extensions that run horizontally underground and sprout roots below and new plant shoots above. Running bamboos are monopodial and have long rhizomes that are quick to spread horizontally. Clumping bamboos are sympodial and have shorter rhizomes that stay closer to their point of origin and do not spread so rapidly. While clumping bamboos tend to grow outward from a central plant, running types quickly extend across a lawn or garden and pop up where you may not want them.

With this in mind, it's easy to see why running bamboos are often classified as invasive plants. It's also easy to see why most people new to growing bamboo choose to grow one of the clumping types.

Types of Clumping Bamboo 

There are a few commonly grown types of clumping bamboo plants:

  • Fargesia 'Rufa'
  • Fargesia nitida 
  • Fargesia robusta

F. 'Rufa' Green Panda™ is popular because it stays relatively short (8 to 10 feet high) and is cold-hardy; it can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 through 9. While is it relatively sun-tolerant, it will do best where it receives some shade in the afternoon, especially if you live at the southern end of the zone range.

F. nitida is equally cold-hardy but is taller (12 to 15 feet). F. robusta 'Campbell' also grows to 12 to 15 high, but it is not as hardy; it can be grown in zones 7 through 9.

Types of Running Bamboo

The common species of running bamboo tend to be taller and less cold-hardy than the popular clumping types:

  • Phyllostachys nigra is a black bamboo that stands 20 to 35 feet and grows in zones 7 through 10.
  • Hibanobambusa tranquillans 'Shiroshima' is a variegated bamboo reaching 16 feet; it grows in zones 7 through 9.
  • Phyllostachys bambusoides 'Allgold' grows in zones 7 through 10 and can reach a height of 35 feet. It boasts a yellow culm (the technical term for a bamboo's stalk).

In spite of the common warnings, some people do choose to grow a running bamboo. Their growth habit surely makes them tempting for folks seeking a living privacy fence. You might even grow running bamboo by mistake, not knowing whether the bamboo that you recently planted is a running or a clumping type. In any case, the best way to contain the spread of running bamboo is to erect a bamboo barrier, a heavy plastic shield that you bury into the ground, so it extends about 30 inches into the soil and a couple of inches above the soil. The barrier prevents the spread of the bamboo's rhizomes.