A Gardening Journal

Big-leaved Bamboo

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Bigger than big:  No bamboo leaves are larger than those of Indocalamus.  No matter that this is a bamboo that thrives in Boston, it brings the look of Borneo to your garden year-round.

 

My colony thrives amid a large gold-leaf forsythia, which is a great contrast in color as well as texture: the bamboo's enormous leaves look as big as palm fronds.

 

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And both are very happy in the morning sun of this narrow bed on the north side of the house.  You can also grow Indocalamus in full sun, but my hunch is that it will get larger leaflets in the shade. 

 

My leaves, as bodacious as they look, are actually on the small side this year, barely a foot long.  Leaves can be twice as long on colonies that are older and are growing where there's minimal Winter damage.  But I cut the entire colony to the ground in the Spring, which was a quicker response to a hard Winter than clipping just this leafet or that.  These marvelous but smaller leaves on shorter-than-usual canes are "just" the rebound growth.

 

As so often in gardens, it's the Winter drainage that's key:  I know of a colony growing 40 miles North of here that's twice as tall as mine.  And, yup, its site is drier all Winter long.

  

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To have this bamboo at any height, from two feet to ten, is a joy for gardeners from Boston to Boca. 

 

 

 

Here's how to grow this unique bamboo:

Latin Name

Indocalamus tessellatus

Common Name

Big-leaved Bamboo

Family

Poaceae, the Grass family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen running bamboo.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 9.

Habit

Upright, spreading into large colonies unless contained.  Full to the ground.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

A clump ten feet across and eight feet tall—even wider and taller in milder climates.

Texture

Tropical and dense.

Grown for

its uniquely large leaves, which are, by far, the largest of any bamboo.  Individual leaflets can be two feet long and four inches wide—many times the size of "normal" bamboo.  

 

its tolerance of shade.  This is a stunning bamboo to grow under high deciduous trees, or (as I do) on the north side of a building, where it gets only some morning sun.

 

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.)  But indocalamus is particularly suited to erosion control because of its dense foliage and large leaves, which diffuse even the most torrential rain. 

 

its leaves' unpalatability to deer, a surprise given their immense size.  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. 

 

its full-to-the-ground habit and mature height of six to ten feet, which make it, potentially, a great choice for screening.  Need to hide all your garbage cans?  The neighbor's chain-link dog run?  Big-leaf Bamboo could be the answer.

 

its Winter-interest importance as a broad-leaf evergreen.

Flowering season

All bamboo is, typically, monocarpic, flowering just once, and then dying. (The species survive only through the germination of the resultant seeds.)  Individual plants sometimes recover from flowering, but don't count on it: 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.  Some bamboo 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 bamboos, let alone where we are in the flowering cycle of any particular one of them.  All of the bamboo of a given species, world-wide, tends to flower in about the same year or two.  In any event, "flowering" is far too pretty a word; bamboo flowers aren't showy any more than the flowers of your lawn-grass.

Culture

Indocalamus 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. 

 

Indocalamus will thrive in full sun as well as part-shade; I can't prove it but my hunch is that the already-huge leaflets are even bigger in the shade.  Yippee!

How to handle it

Indocalamus 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 the 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—like, 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.  Alas, 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 this Indocalamus colony: 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 six 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. 

Downsides

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

Variants

While there are a couple of other indocalamus, I. tessellatus has the largest leaves by far.  I'd be hard pressed to grow more than one Indocalamus.  There are scores of other bamboos to tempt you, though, dozens hardy into Zone 6, and some even down to Zone 5.  Mature heights can range from under a foot to many yards tall—even, in older colonies in the milder end of their range, several stories tall.  Some bamboos have leaves that are very showily striped or edged in white or yellow.  Others have canes that are notably yellow, brown, black, bulbous, contorted, or mottled. 

 

There are also (thank goodness) bamboos that don't run; these are called, appropriately, the clumpers.  Most are (alas) tender in New England, with the sole exception of the many fargesias. 

 

To my eye, every garden in Zone 7 and 6 should have Indocalamus tessellatus; one or more of the fargesias (which can vary a lot in their mature sizes); one or even several of the variegated smaller-size bamboos like Pleioblastus or Sasa; and one of the taller "forest" bamboos like Phyllostachys

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By division.

Native habitat

Japan.

 
 
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