For the love of bamboo: Susan Ruskin and Peter Berg mark 30 years growing quindembo

  • Once young bamboos graduate to four gallon and larger pots, they are ready to be sold. (Diana Duff/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Susan and Peter are responsible for bringing many unique bamboo varieties to Hawaii over the last thirty years. (Diana Duff/Special to Wes Hawaii Today)

  • The bamboo nicknamed "Barbie" has a light blue cast on her new culms which adds to her appeal. (Peter Berg via Diana Duff/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • The charm of the black asper bamboo is cast by its huge size as well as its stunning shiny black culms. (Susan Ruskin via Diana Duff/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • A drive-through Quindembo Nursery is flanked by the majestic Ghost bamboo. (Peter Perg via Diana Duff/Special to West Hawaii Today)

After a year of traveling in the South Pacific, Susan Ruskin and Peter Berg decided they did not want to return to the mainland and their former jobs and way of life. They had become interested in the multiple qualities of bamboo plants and had decided they would open a bamboo nursery on the Big Island.

Susan recalls them wondering, “How hard could that be?”

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Well, now they know. It has not always been easy.

They started by ordering bamboo “mother plants” from India, China, Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia, Indonesia, Thailand and Australia. At the time, all imported bamboo had to spend a year in quarantine at a state Department of Agriculture facility.

Once the “moms” came out of quarantine, Susan and Peter did a fast study in bamboo propagation and now, nearly 30 years later, they have an online catalog of over 40 different bamboo varieties. They continue to carefully propagate new plants and usually hold their keiki in a part of their nursery they call the ICU. After about a year, most of them are ready for larger pots. Once they graduate to 4-gallon pots, they are ready to sell.

They do grow some out into 25-gallon pots for folks who are anxious to have instant landscaping.

Susan reports that in 1990’s one of their hardest tasks was to convince potential customers that their bamboos would not run wild in the landscape. Many people in Hawaii had experienced running bamboos that had spread fast and wide becoming invasive.

Peter describes how their bamboos differ from invasive ones, “The underground rhizome is like a potato and has a totally different architecture than a running bamboo.”

All of the Quindembo varieties are clumping bamboos.

According to Susan, “It took years of education to overcome prejudices from previous bad experiences with bamboo.”

Their education program seems to have worked. Today they rarely have to explain the difference between their clumping bamboos and invasive running bamboos.

When they first started raising bamboos for sale, Peter and Susan concentrated on bamboos that were good for use in construction, for edible shoots, or as windbreaks. They knew some people appreciated the ornamental beauty of many bamboo species and that others were interested in edible varieties. Though they still sell bamboos for these uses, most of their sales today are to folks seeking “neighbor abatement.”

As development of new housing areas continues here in Hawaii, the desire to create a space separate from our neighbors has risen. Bamboo offers an excellent way to meet this desire. The right species in ideal growing conditions can rapidly provide a privacy and sound screen between neighboring lots.

Perhaps due to their stately beauty, bamboo plants might appear hard to maintain.

Susan dispelled this myth by reminding me that bamboo is just a big grass. It thrives when it is well placed, receives adequate moisture and occasional fertilizer. Each species that Quindembo offers has slightly different growing preferences and tolerances but these are all described in their catalog and no customer goes home with a bamboo without full instructions on best care practices.

Though Susan and Peter began their bamboo adventure with an affection for the plant, this has grown to a love of the many diverse members of the subfamily Bambusoideae in the grass family Poaceae. Like good parents, they hesitated to name favorites in the family, but several stories and photos they shared with me, gave me some clues to their proclivities.

Susan waxed eloquent on the black asper (Dendrocalamus asper). She described it as the stuff of legends. Though it was likely a sport or cultivar of the green asper, she was intrigued by stories of the giant black version. In 1996, they found it in Indonesia and imported it. It remains somewhat rare and mythical but Quindembo continues to sell it and Susan’s fondness remains. Its large black culms and huge mature size make it too big for most residential lots, but those who have the space for it, can enjoy its spectacular beauty.

Many species have colors and traits that distinguish them from other family members. Another favored specimen Bambusa chungii “Barballata,” lovingly nicknamed “Barbie” bears culms that have an attractive baby blue cast. She is distinguished further by her relatively small footprint and is often a good choice for house lots.

Several varieties have a lovely weeping growth habit which appeals to many bamboo lovers. Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata aztecorum) as well as the somewhat stiffer Mayan Silver (Otatea glauca) both add beauty and grace to a landscape or large garden. Another weeper is the almost dainty Himalayan weeping bamboo (Drepanostachyum khasianum). She also sports the powdery blue dust on her new culms. In addition, the small Costa Rican weeping bamboo (Chusquea liebmanii) is a very popular container specimen.

On my recent visit to the nursery, I was struck by the size and stature of the ghost bamboo which they have planted lining a drive through their Kapa’au property. Named for the white cast to her culms, Ghost bamboo struck me as far more beautiful than spooky and it definitely defined and glorified the drive.

It was Peter and Susan’s background in the music industry that led them to choose the unusual name Quindembo for their nursery. It is a term used in Latin music to describe a multi-cultural mix that morphs into a new musical style. The bamboo at Quindembo is definitely a multi-cultural mix that has produced some beautiful plants.

You only need to glance through their catalog to experience the wide variety of sizes, colors, textures and uses for the many species that Quindembo offers. Even if you are not currently thinking of planting bamboo on your property or installing some as potted specimens, you will be dazzled by the beautiful photos and thorough descriptions on their website at www.bamboonursery.com. Plan to spend some time learning about bamboo varieties and about Quindembo Nursery. You won’t be sorry.

Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living part time in Kailua-Kona.

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Gardening Events

Every Saturday: “Work Day at Amy Greenwell Garden” from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meet at the Garden Visitor Center across from the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook. Come with a mask and be prepared to practice social distancing. Volunteers can help with garden maintenance and are invited to bring a brown bag lunch. Water and snacks provided. Call Peter at 323-3318 for more information.

Farmer Direct Markets

Check websites for new hours and online markets

Wednesday: “Hooulu Farmers Market” at Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay

Saturday: “Keauhou Farmers Market,” 8 a.m. to noon at Keauhou Shopping Center. More info: www.keauhoufarmersmarket.com/onlinemarket

“Kamuela Farmer’s Market,” 7:30 a.m. to noon at Pukalani Stables

“Waimea Town Market,” 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Parker School in central Waimea

“Waimea Homestead Farmers Market” from 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Waimea middle and elementary school playground

Sunday: “Pure Kona Green Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook

“Hamakua Harvest,” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Highway 19 and Mamane Street in Honokaa

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Plant Advice Lines

Anytime via email to konamg@ctahr.hawaii.edu or by calling (808) 322-4893 from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesday and Thursday. Walk-ins accepted 9 a.m. to noon Monday, Tuesday and Friday UH-CES in Kainaliu.