Bamboo can be a popular plant because it grows fast, spreads quickly and creates tall, thick evergreen formations that also provide privacy. However, bamboo can aggressively take over yards, suppress native plant species and be generally destructive to the natural environment. Because of the potential negative threats that bamboo can pose, we encourage you to consider using native alternatives to bamboo or – if bamboo is absolutely on your must-have list – know the right kind of bamboo to plant and the precautions to help it stay healthy and under control.
Before deciding that bamboo is a must for your yard, think about what you are trying to achieve. If a privacy screen is desired along a property line or adjacent to a structure, evergreens would make a good choice, and a healthy alternative to bamboo. If your goal is to create more aesthetic islands or visual effects, ornamental shrubs, grasses and perennials should be considered.
Native Virginia plants are always a good choice. Big bluestem, bottlebrush grass, Indian grass and switchgrass are native varieties that all provide vertical interest and screening.
There are two main types of bamboo. Clumping bamboo (sympodial or pachymorph) is noninvasive, with short roots that spread slowly in small clumps. Running bamboo (monopodial or leptomorph) is invasive and spreads quickly through the growth of long, horizontal stems called rhizomes.
While both kinds of bamboo can cause challenges, running bamboo can be very destructive, traveling and spreading as much as 15 feet horizontally per year as the rhizomes grow underground like tentacles and push up new cane stalks.
How do you know which kind you’re dealing with? With existing bamboo, look at the base of the plant. The roots of clumping bamboo appear to grow in a perfect circle, with a horizontal root that grows along the surface of the soil right next to the main plant. This bamboo multiplies by producing small clumps just next to the mother clump, giving the appearance of forming a perfect circle of canes.
Do some research before purchasing or planting any new bamboo to avoid bringing home an invasive variety. Look at the nursery tags. If the Latin name starts with “Bambusa” or “Dendrocalamus,” it is a clumping variety and can be controlled with some extra care. If the Latin name starts with “Phyllostachys,” “Sasa,” “Pseudosasa” or “Sinobambusa” (among others), it is a running bamboo and should be avoided.
It is good practice for property owners who choose to plant or maintain running bamboo to take reasonable and responsible steps to control its spread. The rhizomes (roots) of running bamboo send out long underground shoots, with new plants that sprout up along them. These shoots can grow under fence lines, concrete and unsuccessful barriers that result in bamboo spreading to unwanted sites. It is recommended to sink barriers into the soil around running bamboo plants and keep a regular maintenance schedule to keep these bamboos contained.
Even with barriers, regular maintenance is required to keep bamboo under control. Continued removal of new plants and sprouts is necessary, and areas must be monitored to check the health of the plants and surrounding area.