Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Black Bamboo

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Black bamboo is worth checking out in detail.  The ebony-black canes don't start out that color at all, and the changes are as interesting as the result.  The cane above is just entering its third Spring.  It will take the coming season to become solidly dark.

 

In their first year, canes give little hint of their dark maturity.

 

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By the end of the second year, the top of each section of the cane has turned ebony, whereas the bottom of each season still holds plenty of green.

 

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Canes that are three years and older are the darkest—but with at least two years of newer growth in front of them, they can be fairly hidden.  Each canes lives five or six years, so each can contribute only two or three years of maximal darkness to the colony's display.

 

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See "How to handle it: Another option—or two!" for tactics to enhance the ebony display of "black" bamboo.

 

 

 

Here's how to grow this elegant and colorful bamboo:


Latin Name

Phyllostachys nigra

Common Name

Black Bamboo

Family

Poaceae, the Grass family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen running bamboo.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 9.

Habit

Upright and dense, with colonies increasing in size rapidly unless controlled.  See "How to handle it" below.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

In Zone 7 and warmer, where the bamboo is not stressed by a severe Winter, a colony twenty feet or more high and wide.  Potentially over forty feet tall; unless controlled, spread is indefinite.  Or should that be infinite?

Texture

Fine-grained and dense.

Grown for

its canes, which, starting in their second season, change from light green to ebony.  It's a gradual process; typically, canes are not completely "black" until their third season.  The top of each section of the cane starts to darken first, mottling downwards month by month, year by year.  See "How to handle it: Another option—or two!" for strategies to enhance the display. 

its foliage.  Bamboo leaves are surprisingly evergreen.  Hands-down, bamboo is the most underutilized broadleaf evergreen, and are at its most prominent in the Winter, when few other tree-sized plants other than conifers remain green.  The foliage of black bamboo is typical for Phyllostachys: each leaflet is four or five inches long and an inch or so wide.  Leaves can turn tawny and tan during a harsh Winter; those leaves are shed in the Spring, and are replaced by a new crop.  Larger and therefore older and more deeply-rooted colonies remain evergreen better than smaller colonies. 

its prowess as a soil-binder and erosion-controller.  This is a talent that all running bamboos share.  (In Japan, a country always on the verge of being overrun with bamboos of all sorts, the country wisdom is to run into the nearest bamboo grove in an earthquake, where the terrain, solidly bound together by the bamboo rhizomes, is less likely to be sundered beneath you.). 

its leaves' unpalatability to deer.  That said, deer sometimes take a liking to the soft new canes themselves, which take much of the Summer to form.  So this isn't the bamboo for heavily-deered property.

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.  Although bamboos have been cultivated for centuries and observed for millenia, some cultivars have never been recorded as flowering.

 

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 cultivar, world-wide, tend to start into flower during the same few years.

Color combinations

Phyllostachys nigra brings green and ebony to the garden.  It goes with everything.

Partner plants

If possible, plant bright-foliaged plants in back of black bamboo, so the ebony canes show up all the better.  Here, finally, is the reason to plant a hedge of one of the gold-foliaged cultivars of Thuja, Thujopsis, Chamaecyparis, or Cupressocyparis.  Black bamboo also benefits from dark-green groundcovers; pachysandra and vinca are probably the easiest.  Ivy might become a problem in that it could climb up the canes ; the bamboo wouldn't mind but the look would be messy, indeed. 

Where to use it in your garden

Although black bamboo works well as screening, it's usually planted specifically because of the dark canes.  Site it as a specimen, then, not merely as a hardworking structural or background plant.  The canes are as showy in the Winter as in the Summer, so if the colony can be near paving, you can have easy access year-round.  The mottling is interesting at close-range, which is another reason to site near paving.  If the paving is wider than a walkway, it can help provide colony control, too.  

 

Take care, however, that black bamboo isn't sited near a driveway or paving that's crucial for Winter access.  In heavy snow or ice, the canes can become bent to the ground; they right themselves when the snow melts (or you knock it off with a broom), but meanwhile, that driveway or sidewalk could be completely blocked.  Because canes of black bamboo don't assume their fullest and darkest hues until their second and third years, you wouldn't want to have to cut any off prematurely because they are blocking your driveway after a blizzard. 

Culture

Phyllostachys nigra is very tolerant, growing in almost any reasonable soil that isn't bone dry in Summer or poorly-drained in the Winter.  As a rule, bamboos don't tolerate wet feet in the Winter and, indeed, will not cross, let alone colonize, fresh water.  Bamboos are happy, though, to be growing right alongside water as long as they're safely above it.  Then they can dip their roots into it but still keep their horizontal underground runners dry.

Phyllostachys nigra is largest and fullest in full sun, but tolerates part shade.

How to handle it: The Basics:

Phyllostachys is but one of the many garden-worthy bamboos that, alas, are not tidy and timid clumpers.  They are very appropriately called "runners," and would like nothing better than to take over the neighborhood.  The first goal for any gardener who craves running bamboo, then, is to be sure that you'll able to control the ever-adventurous underground rhizomes.

Here are a couple of tactics for success:

1. Bamboo can be "moated" by lawn-grass that you mow, provided it's at least ten feet wide.  Twenty is even better.  The tender new canes are cut off by the mower, and don't grow back:  All of their growth potential is at the very tip of the cane.

2. Bamboo's ahborence of permanently wet soil means that boggy ground or open (fresh) water are themselves a natural barrier.  All bamboos look elegant by open water, so pond- or stream-side planting is practical as well as gorgeous.

3. To have running bamboo growing where you can neither mow around it nor bound it with water—say, as a screen at your property line—means that you'd have to put in an underground barrier.  This is a lot of work, and therefore expense—and often is unsuccessful, to boot.  The best barrier is, of course, also the most expensive:  A poured-concrete foundation wall.  On the other hand, this means that bamboos can be beautifully as well as safely partnered with buildings with poured-concrete foundations.  Bamboo can eventually grow under and out the other side of a concrete pad of a terrace, let alone a standard-width concrete walkway.  In the Deep South, bamboo can pierce right through asphalt.

4. The last method is what I use for my own colony of black bamboo: Whenever a cane pops up too far afield, I feel around between it and the mother colony to find the underground rhizome that sprouted it.  The rhizomes are very shallow, so this is quick as well as easy.  And then I cut the rhizome with hand pruners and—with glee—pull it up, foot by foot, following it ever-outward into the garden.  The rhizomes always grow far beyond where they've started to announce themselves by shooting up the vertical canes.  So the yank-up is a bit of a treasure hunt, and on my hands and knees, too.  My record so far?  A rhizome that had stealthily crept outward twelve feet past its last offending cane. 

Aside from controlling the underground spread of the rhizomes, your next chore is to help your bamboo handle Winter's worst, and recover from it quickly the following Spring and Summer.  Try to get outside in a blizzard or ice-storm (fun, eh?) to keep ice and snow from weighing the bamboo canes to the ground.  They recover, but can block sidewalks and driveways in the meantime.  In late Winter and early Spring, before the new canes start shooting, cut dead or Winter-damaged canes right to the ground.  If your Winters are habitually serious, you could just make a practice of cutting your entire bamboo colony to the ground in, say, early April.  The new growth in May and June will quickly give you new lush growth.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

The ebony canes are striking on their own, but you can help their display become even more memorable.  Can you site black bamboo in front of a light-colored background?  A masonry wall painted cream or white would help contain the underground rhizomes in addition to setting off the dark canes.  So would a white-clapboard house.  For once, here's a plant that looks better without the dark-green backdrop of a perfect yew hedge. 

 

You can also prune off the small branches that emerge from each section of the bamboo canes.  These are what produce all the foliage—which then obscures much of the ebony cane.  Removing those side-branches from the bottom six or eight feet of the cane fully reveals the ebony, which is most prominent on this lower portion of the cane, anyway.

Downsides

Running bamboos need strategic siting (see "How to Handle it" above) if they're not to become a pest.

Variants

Phyllostachys is one of the largest bamboo genera, with about 75 species and 200 cultivars.  In mild climates, some can soar to a hundred feet.  Maximum height is less at the cold end of hardiness.  At any age, a colony in Massachusetts will never be as tall as a colony in Mississippi, but even in southern New England—Zones 6 and 7—a mature colony of some species and cultivars might near forty feet.  Height increases with colony size and age, but maximum height for a given cultivar is only attained if the width of the colony is, more or less, at least that cultivar's potential maximum height.  A colony that's kept at ten feet in diameter will never produce canes that are as tall as one that's kept at fifty.  

 

All Phyllostachys are "running" bamboos, which spread by fast-growing and far-reaching underground rhizomes.  (Clumping bamboos also spread outward, but very slowly.)  Wise selection and effective control are the keys to growing Phyllostachys responsibly, let alone as an exciting and hardworking component of a garden.  See "How to handle it" above. 

 

Because flowering is extremely infrequent—depending on the species and cultivar, there could be many decades between flowering—spread by seed is not normally a worry.  

 

Phyllostachys nuda is the hardiest species, persisting even in Zone 4.  P. vivax 'Aureocaulis' has bright-yellow canes; it is a much larger and more colorful cultivar than the widely-available yellow-groove bamboo, P. aureosulcata, and is fully hardy in Zone 6.  The foliage of P. bissetii is particularly dense, and is held notably lower on the canes, making this species excellent for privacy and, where its canes are solidly hardy (the warm end of Zone 5 and milder) even pruning into hedges.


Although maximum height is seductive, shorter Phyllostachys colonies are more versatile.  Taller cultivars can cast considerable shade, and when they (temporarily) bend over with snow- or ice-load, can suddenly take up several times as much space, blocking driveways or even roads.  P. aureosulcata 'Lama Temple' doesn't top 15 feet.

 

These fine points of height and cane color notwithstanding, all Phyllostachys species and cultivars have a similarity in texture and habit.  Only in larger gardens could you have enough room for several without the overall look being repetitive.  There are choices of Phyllostachys even in Zone 4 and 5, and more than a few in Zones 6 and warmer.  Choose the one that is the most interesting, not just the most hardy where you're gardening; it's likely to be the only Phyllostachys your garden will need. 

Availability

On-line and, occasionally, at retailers.

Propagation

By division.

Native habitat

Phyllostachys nigra is native to China.

 
 
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