September 26, 2013
Green Team Part 19: Is Bamboo for You?
All bamboo isn’t equal. Some plants may be environmentally invasive
With its distinctive structure and tidy appearance, traditional bamboo appeals to those with contemporary design sensibilities. While its benefits are many, so are its drawbacks. Proper plant selection was on our minds in our last post, and bamboo is no exception for the same considerations.
Bamboo establishes itself in dense groves that provide quickly growing screens for privacy or separation of spaces. Its finely textured leaves create a lush, verdant habitat. From a design standpoint, it may be the answer to many site constraints and aesthetic preferences. This mostly non-native plant, however, poses many challenges from environmental, maintenance and geographical standpoints.
Bamboo’s dense, upright structure is appealing to designers for use in areas where texture, screening, and/or where its geometric silhouette is needed to complement adjacent design elements. This bamboo is installed at Columbia University’s Lenfest Hall.
Courtesy Mathews Nielsen
Bamboo is classified into two basic categories—clumping or running. Clumping bamboo roots do not spread quickly, and the plants are easily managed. Running, or spreading, species have more extensive root systems that expand by underground rhizomes and can become aggressive. They grow vigorously and take over adjacent areas, crowding out other plantings. They can be difficult to maintain due to their invasive character, and their extensive root systems are equally difficult to remove. While there are hundreds of species of bamboo in the tropical ranges of Asia and South America, the species of bamboo that tend to be most suitable to Northeast US conditions are the spreading varieties.
Left: On the left, spreading bamboo species have lateral root systems that spread quickly via rhizomes. Right: The image on the right shows the more contained root structured of clumping bamboo.
Courtesy (Left) www.bamboobotanicals.ca and (Right) www.bamboosourcery.com
When thinking of planting bamboo, we need to look beyond the structured aesthetic and ensure that its benefits outweigh its disadvantages. One advantage is that bamboo is known to be deer tolerant. In suburban or rural locations where deer populations regularly deplete gardens, bamboo plantings with contained root systems prove to be invaluable for screening off private garden areas where wider evergreen plantings are too cumbersome. In addition, fast-growing bamboo reaches maturity quickly compared to its evergreen counterparts such as arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) or eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana). Due to its lack of prominent flowers and related pollen, there is also minimal concern about the use of the plant as it relates to allergies.
These bamboo plants can quickly cover large areas, thus reducing initial costs associated with plant material and installation. Additionally, varieties of bamboo provide designers with a broad palette of sizes, colors, and textures that can be selected to complement or accent adjacent plantings, architecture, and structures. The upright form of the plant lends itself to narrow spaces that require vertical interventions where wider, tall species similar to the evergreen species would be cramped.
Bamboo’s comparatively thin culms (trunks) are also an advantage over the ever-increasing diameters of woody plants’ trunks. An abundance of species and cultivars come in a broad range of culm colors including Phyllostachys nigra, whose culms mature to a near black, and Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’ (a clumping variety), whose culms mature to a golden color with green stripes. Smaller species, like the dwarf fern-leaf bamboo (Pleioblastus pygmaeus), are prized as rapidly spreading groundcover; landscape architects favor them for their texture and verdure. But these plants can become invasive in unmaintained conditions and crowd out native plant species.
Groundcover bamboo was used at the Life Sciences Building at University of Albany for its full, low-growing habit and bright color.
Courtesy Mathews Nielsen
Due to the aggressive nature of this family of plants, the use of bamboo away from its native range requires a sensitive, informed approach. The complexities of bamboo selection will fall mainly on the owner due to the onerous maintenance requirements to contain or remove spreading bamboo species.
Care must be taken during installation to ensure that root barriers are properly placed; regular inspection/maintenance is required to prevent/repair any breaks. While using planters and pots may seem like an easy solution to planting bamboo, it’s good to remember that the plant’s vigorous growth will require regular repotting to ensure its health.
In addition, bamboo must be protected from high winds that can cause desiccation; this makes it counterintuitive to the desire to use bamboo to screen and act as a barrier between spaces. Siting of the plants must be approached with the intent to limit exposure.
As with all plant selections, care must be taken with bamboo, given its noted potential to become invasive. An increasing number of cities and regions prohibit the planting of these spreading species. Few other species of plants match the aesthetic properties of bamboo. But from time to time, designers must make the environmentally responsible decision over their desire for a certain “look.”
Terrie Brightman, RLA, ASLA is a practicing landscape architect at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects in New York City with nine years of professional experience. Since receiving her BLA from the Pennsylvania State University, she has worked on riverfronts in Pittsburgh, private residences in California and Florida, a sustainable community in Turkey, and multiple public parks, plazas, and waterfronts throughout New York City.
This is one in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects’ Green Team that focus on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series shares the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team also shares its knowledge about plants, geography, stormwater, sustainability, materials, and more.