Bamboo occupy a special position in the plant kingdom. Botanically, they belong to the large family of grasses although in contrast to the herb-like bamboo, many species have a shrub- or even tree-like habit, with long-lived woody stems and side branches. The tropical genus Gigantochloa, for example, reaches a stem height of 40 m, with a cane diameter of 25 cm. The genus Phyllostachys produces robust, tall and dense plants and is, at least in Central Europe, the most important of these bamboo. Its 50 or so species are native to East Asia and the Himalayas. They are distinguished from Arundinaria, Sinarundinaria and Sasa species by their distinctively flattened stems. Most Phyllostachys spread rapidly with suckers and require a lot of space for their full development.
Even in our climate, fast growing varieties, as for example Ph. viridiglaucescens, can have culms of up to 10 m in height and stem diameters of 6 to 7 cm. Noteworthy is the speed at which the young canes grow. In the Botanical Gardens in Hamburg, during the warm summer of 1989, a rate of 42 cm in 24 hours was recorded (1 m in Japan!).
The fascinating elegance of bamboo offers a variety of uses in garden design. They are best as specimens near water or in the front of woodland planting, in borders of low herbaceous plants, grasses or shrubs, as giant grasses in front of steel, glass and concrete structures or as evergreen hedges and as an openly textured backdrop. Their fresh green colour adds a sophisticated note to the spring garden, and they make a unique contribution to our winter
Phyllostachys are not very demanding as to soil conditions. They are pH tolerant and grow on sandy as well as on loamy or peaty, humus-rich soils. They fail on water-logged sites. They require fertilising and water in summer, if high canes are to be produced. In winter they should be mulched with cow or horse manure. This promotes good growth during the following summer and also protects from frost, important for younger plants. Those who plant bamboo need to be patient. The beautiful strong culms are produced only after 10 to 15 years. The rhythm of flowering remains a secret until the present day. Many species flower in cycles of 30, 60, 80 or 120 years, periods which are well defined according to species. After flowering and setting a large crop of seeds, most species die.
Bamboo still play a major role for the population of Asia in everyday life, being food source and building material. Furniture, fencing, scaffolding, drain pipes, containers of all sorts, tools, rope, mats and hats are made from bamboo. The better gramophone needles used to be made from bamboo and in Edison's first light bulb glowed a thin, scorched bamboo fibre.