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or just about any other place where concrete consumes

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Plant Profiles

Compact Clumping Bamboo

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Clumping bamboo: the best screening that you never have to prune.  This cultivar is 'Ems River'.  Unlike most of its fellow Fargesia species, its canes are always upright.  Other Fargesia canes can arch outward and even downward, in an attractive—but space-hungry—cascade that inspires one of the common names for Fargesia:  Fountain bamboo. 

 

Each year brings a new crop of canes.  They're taller than the rest, and they don't leaf out until their second year.

 

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But there aren't many new crops of canes left for 'Ems River'.  The cultivar is over a century old, and it's time to flower.  My colony is only ten years old, but all colonies in a given bamboo species keep pretty much to the same scheduling.  And for Fargesia nitida and all of its cultivars, 'Ems River' included, these are the years to flower—and then die.

 

I planted three clumps, and the left has already flowered and died.  It's only a matter of a couple of years for the others to follow suit.

 

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It's impossible to breed a plant that waits 120 years, more or less, to flower.  It would take many centuries to do the generation-by-generation crosses and back-crosses that Mendel did in only a couple of years with his garden peas.

 

Bamboo species carry on by seed, as a new generation, and any new cultivars that arise in that generation are the result of natural variation.  They're identified only after they're mature enough to show how they're different from the species.  New cultivars, then, can be identified only after the new generation's seedlings have been growing for years.  Cultivar identification continues throughout the life of the generation, during which time they as well as the species itself are propagated by division. 

 

But when the species' time is up, it's up for all that species' cultivars, too.  They all flower, go to seed, and die.  Any cultivar, then, only lives as long as its generation.  When its generation dies, that cultivar becomes extinct.

 

So in a few years, there won't be any 'Ems River' at all; they are one of the cultivars of the currently-dying generation.  But the new generation of Fargesia is old enough that individual cultivars are already being identified.

 

 

Here's how to grow this unique bamboo:


Latin Name

Fargesia nitida 'Ems River'

Common Name

Compact Clumping Bamboo

Family

Poaceae, the Grass family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen clumping bamboo.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 9.

Habit

Upright and dense, with colonies increasing in size so slowly—just inches a year—that they seem not to be increasing at all, hence the common name of "clumping" bamboo.  Another common name of Fargesia—fountain bamboo—is a misnomer in the case of 'Ems River', whose canes are completely upright. 

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

A colony twelve feet high and, at the top, eight to ten feet across.  Perhaps five feet across at the base.

Texture

Fine-grained and dense.

Grown for

its self-control.  Each year, the rhizomes of a a given bamboo species or cultivar grow their preferred distance underground—anywhere from a few inches to many yards—before turning their activity to producing that season's vertical canes, the shoots.  The bamboos that spread by feet and yards annually are, understandably, known as "runners."


Clumping bamboos aren't actually clumping at all, at least not in the way, say, of a peony, which even after fifty years would still not have grown beyond its original few square feet.  Clumpers spread outward each year just like the runners do, but their rhizomes' "preferred distance" might be just an inch or two.  It would take a clumping bamboo many decades to colonize the same amount of space that a running bamboo might do in just a couple of years.  But colonize it, it will.


It's more accurate, then, not to differentiate bamboos as quickly- or slowly-colonizing, not as running or clumping.  Fargesia species are just really, really slow at expanding their colonies—so slow that, compared to the fast-moving runners, they seem to be just clumping, and not colonizing at all.

 

 

 

preference for shade.  Fargesia doesn't just tolerate part shade, it prefers it.  Only at the cold end of its range would it enjoy full sun.

 

 

 

its prowess at creating privacy.  Because each season's new shoots arise so close to those of the previous seasons, even young Fargesia colonies are dense enough to create screening.  Bamboos whose canes are more widely-spaced to begin with—the runners—can be thinned further to create airy groves open enough to walk through.  (If running bamboos are allowed to grow ad libitum, they eventually create excellent privacy, too.)  Fargesia colonies aren't "thinnable" in any practical sense: You'd need to cull another cane every inch.  Fargesia colonies, then, always create privacy.  Fargesia foliage is only somewhat evergreen, but the density of growth of the canes themselves maintains reasonable screening.        

Flowering season

Bamboo species are, typically, monocarpic: a colony flowers just once and then dies.  The species survive only through the germination of the resultant seeds.  Individual plants sometimes recover from flowering, but don't count on it, so flowering is something to regret, not rejoice in.  Happily, the "generation time" between episodes of flowering, depending on the species, can be many years or even generations.  The generation time of Fargesia species is around a century; for F. nitida, it's about 120 years.  Some bamboo species have never been recorded as flowering, even after a couple of centuries of cultivation. 

 

I don't know of a resource that lists the generation times of the different bamboos, let alone where we are in the flowering cycle of any particular one of them.  All of the colonies of a given species, world-wide, tend to start into flower during the same few years.  Fargesia nitida has been flowering for over a decade, and the new generation of cultivars is becoming available.  In any event, "flowering" is far too pretty a word; bamboo flowers aren't showy any more than the flowers of your lawn-grass.

Color combinations

Fargesia brings green and only green—albeit a light green—to the garden.  It goes with everything.

Partner plants

The small light-green foliage of Fargesia looks good with anything darker, bigger, or both.  I've backed my 'Ems River' colony with a yew hedge, whose tiny needles make the Fargesia leaves seem big, and whose dark color is an excellent backdrop.   Fargesia also benefits from dark-green groundcovers; pachysandra and vinca are probably the easiest.  Ivy might become a problem in that it could climb up into the Fargesia colonies; the bamboo wouldn't mind but the look would be messy, indeed. 

Where to use it in your garden

As screening that doesn't need pruning, Fargesia is unequalled.  Plant clumps four feet apart, and within five years, they'll fill in.  

 

Individual colonies are a better year-round presence than ornamental grasses; unlike the grasses, they don't need to be cut to the ground in the Spring.   

Culture

Fargesia will grow in almost any soil as long as it isn't too dry in the Summer, and it provides good drainage year-round.  Afternoon shade is a good idea, especially at the warm end of its hardiness range.  Dappled shade all day long is also good.  Except at the cold end of hardiness range, avoid siting in full sun.

How to handle it

Fargesia species are particularly low-maintenance, with none of the occasional thinning or cut-to-the-ground-in-Spring tasks that can be needed with bamboo that are both larger and smaller.  Thank goodness maintenance is low: Fargesia growth is so dense it would be difficult to access canes in the interior of a colony, anyway.  

 

Fargesia can be pruned, even into a hedge, but to my eye, it's a graceless look.  Instead, site Fargesia to allow many years of free-range growth.  'Ems River' doesn't weep like many, so could be sited closer to walkways and driveways.  Because the underground rhizomes only creep outward an inch or so before producing a shoot, Fargesia is easily contained by siting alongside paving: there's never a risk that a rhizome can "hold its breath" and travel all the way to the other side of the paving before sending up its shoots.        

Downsides

Fargesia is trouble-free as long as you site for long-term colony size.

Variants

There are several score species of Fargesia, but their similarities trump their differences.  All appreciate some shade, all have dense growth and, at least compared to other bamboos, small leaves.  Some "fountain" readily—and so need much more room than is needed for the colony's footprint alone.  "Fountaining" is attractive, but does take up more room.

 

Fargesia nitida is in the early years of its new generation, as is Fargesia murileae.  New cultivars of both species will be identified for decades to come.  As long as you plant individuals that are identified as being "new generation" or "new seedling" you're assured of a solid century of growth.  F. dracocephala, F. rufa, and F. denudata are not known to be close to flowering, so can all be planted with confidence of years of growth. 

Availability

On-line and, occasionally, at retailers.

Propagation

By division.

Native habitat

Fargesia is native to China.

 
 
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