There are many lessons to be learned during times when we are home and garden bound. In my 82 years of life, I have never experienced so much time not being busy with school, work, family or travel. Just about the time we run out of things to keep our minds and bodies occupied, bamboo has come to assist me in meditation. According to Peter Berg and Susan Ruskin of Quindembo Nursery, they have imported over 100 species of noninvasive bamboo species. These are suitable for privacy hedges, gorgeous landscape statements, edible shoots, windbreaks and those used for construction. At Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary we have tested many of those species and this is the season when many begin to go into active shoot growth. It is just the right time to sit and meditate as some species will grow from one to two feet in a single day. With patience one can actually watch them reach upward for the light!
Hawaii’s varied climates and cultural makeup are ideal for bamboo, but until the 1980s, there was no serious effort to introduce the valuable elite bamboos of Asia and the Americas. Thanks to the Hawaii Chapter of the American Bamboo Society and Quindembo Nurssery, we now have many species from which to choose.
Bamboos have been used in Chinese gardens since 2000 BC. In the later centuries leading up to AD 1000, the Japanese started trading with China and many species were naturalized in Japan to enhance the gardens of temples and those of wealthy traders. The first recorded introduction to the West was Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) in 1827. In the 20th century, many species were introduced by USDA Experiment Stations in Puerto Rico and Louisiana with hopes to develop new crop potentials.
After a number of hurricanes in Puerto Rico, growers in Mayaguez PR noted that bamboo plantings established several years ago faired better than most tree crops in the region. Just one month after the last major storm, bamboo groves were the first showing signs of growth when forests and farms were stripped of vegetation. The original bamboo project started at the Federal Experiment Station at Mayaguez in the late 1930s and was spearheaded by Floyd Alonzo McClure. Valuable bamboos species from Asia were established, tested and distributed throughout the Caribbean and Central America over the next few decades. Today scores of species are utilized, but bamboo is not new to indigenous American Cultures. Guadua species native to the Americas were used as early as 9,500 years ago.
Asia is the ancestral home of many kamaaina, both people and plants. When it comes to plants, one of the most valuable of these is bamboo. Although there are many species found in central and South America, tropical and subtropical Asia has utilized bamboo for thousands of years. It is said that bamboo and rice are the very foundation of these cultures. The Hawaiian Ohe Kahiko, may be found in many parts of Polynesia. The actual genus and specie is not clear with taxonomists and botanists not all agreeing. We do know that it is a tropical clumper probably originating in Southeast Asia. It is likely Schizostachyum and has been called S. glaucifolium in Hawaii. There are vast stands in the mountains of high islands like Raiatea in the Society Islands. Polynesians there still use it in crafts.
With large tracts of land now available for forestry, and our local interest in sustainable agriculture, bamboo may become one of our major resources. It has many uses, both commercial and ornamental.
Some folks only know bamboo from their experience with the rampant running species. Needless to say, these types are not for the small garden unless contained. However, they have been used very effectively to stabilize steep slopes that are prone to erosion. That is why we find large stands of Phyllostachys running bamboos on the steeps slopes above Waiohinu in Ka‘u or at the back of Manoa Valley on Oahu and on Maui. The intricate mat of roots and rhizomes hold soil and rocks in place and save roads, homes and streams from mud and rockslides. Bamboos are certainly a more attractive and environmentally sound approach to steep slope erosion control than concrete, wire or chain link screens. Erosion on East Hawaii gulch roads is a serious problem that could be addressed with certain bamboo species.
Bamboos are also excellent cattle feed and have a place in supplying nutritious greens at a low cost. Local growers have been working on the potential of growing bamboos for multiple use sustainable agriculture incorporating the animal feed component.
Even though bamboos are excellent sources of edible shoots and construction material, most folks are interested in ornamental bamboos for their beauty. Bamboos, of one type or another, are a natural for almost any tropical garden. In fact, many of the hundreds of types do grow in the tropics, but some species grow as far north as New York or Seattle, and can be found growing up to 10,000 feet in the mountains of Asia, Central and South America. Bamboos vary from forest giants of 120 feet to dwarfs of 6 inches.
Many specimens of bamboo are suitable for ornamental purposes. The clump bamboos are ideally suited for ornamental uses in their area of adaptation. They can be planted in groups for hedges or singly for specimen plantings. They spread very slowly and are easy to keep within bounds. One of the best for sunny locations is the Mexican weeping bamboo. Others to consider are the Bambusa multiplex forms such as Alphonse Karr, Fern leaf, Silver Stripe and Feather bamboo. These delicate clump types range from 10 feet to 20 feet high. Other rare clumping types are beginning to show up in our nurseries like the Chusqueas and Drepanostachyums
For larger gardens, try Bambusa chungii (Tropical Blue Hedge) and Weaver’s bamboo. There are several other Bambusas also available These are all clumping types in the 20- to 40-foot high range with fancy Latin names and multiple uses.
The giant tropical clumping bamboos need plenty of room since they soar from 50 to 100 feet tall under ideal conditions. This group includes the larger Bambusa, Dendrocalamus, Guadua, and Gigantochloa species that may have culms 6 to 12 inches in diameter. They are grown for edible shoots, construction material, windbreaks and furniture. Favorites are the black culm types like Hitam, Lako and Gigantochloa atroviolecea. Another favorite spectacular giant is Dendrocalamus brandisii.
Miniature bamboos well suited to container growing are the Sasa species and Shibatea kumasasa. These and other running bamboos like black bamboo can be kept small or bonsai when contained. The running bamboos are more difficult to keep in bounds than the clump bamboo. However, many are desirable as ornamental plants because of diversity in their habit of growth, appearance, and size.
Bamboos do best in a moist well-drained soil with some organic matter. Apply complete fertilizer such as organic 8-8-8 or manures four to six times a year to the planting. Mulch the soil around the planting. Mulches add organic matter to the soil, help to restrict the growth of weeds and conserve soil moisture. Dead leaves or dry grass clippings can be used for mulch. Apply a layer of mulching material at least three inches deep.
For further information on bamboo, call the UHCTAHR Master Gardeners at 322-4893 in Kona or 981-5199 in Hil.