Without mentioning any names — not that you'd know her anyway — I know someone who helped her partner plant bamboo all over his new yard just before she left him. It is an old, tired story. He was having a secret affair, except she knew and couldn't cope with it anymore. What probably looked like small, lovely bands of green topped with soft shivering leaves is probably upending his driveway and back porch right about now. My heart breaks for both of them. Oh, that karma.
Bamboo has always been scary to me. While other people's nightmares may be filled with monsters in the form of animals, dragons, or other people, my dream monster has long been bamboo. Bamboo that takes over my house. Bamboo that hides my children so well I can't find them. Bamboo that overturns the bridge that I need to drive over to get to work. It didn't help when customers and colleagues would hunt me down to tell me bamboo horror stories back in my Molbak days — bamboo that came up through their concrete (concrete!) patio. Bamboo that, suddenly, appeared in the corner of a garage.
On the other hand, I've always been an admirer of the grass. It's the sound. Bamboo has its own sound. When I hear a breeze making its way through a thicket of bamboo it feels like all of the wind of the world settling into one spot to whisper sweet nothings into my ears. And it doesn't hurt that bamboo is just plain beautiful, with its long, multicolored culms and long, thin, pointed leaves.
Bamboo has always been a part of Zen, this life's great passion. It is one of China's four noble plants (along with orchids, chrysanthemums, and flowering plums). In Japan it is one of the three most revered plants, along with flowering plums and pine. Eastern poetry is filled with bamboo images representing longevity and stability and the wisdom of a person who, when violently shaken by the storms life brings, bends but never breaks. Tea ceremonies wouldn't be tea ceremonies without bamboo.
The nightmares had to go. I wanted bamboo in my life. In June I fearlessly (for me) decided to take the bamboo monsters on with a full frontal assault. I'd learn how to control them enough to bring one home to plant. Plus, OK, I saw that The Portland Nursery was sponsoring a bamboo class by Ian Connor, a northwest based expert on all things bamboo. Having attended the class, I am pleased to announce that I am happy ever after.
Clumper bamboo doesn't spread. It can grow anywhere from six to twenty feet tall and stay where it is. It can be cut down to the ground on Valentine's Day and pop back up shiny and new in the same place. There are clumper bamboos that make great ground covers, growing to about the height of your knees. Those of us living in the Northwest who have always believed that it is a tropical plant can take heart. Many of the clumpers are cold hardy. Better yet, clumpers don't need a lot of water and can take sun (except that late afternoon sun, which isn't good for anything except maybe tomatoes). They aren't susceptible to disease or pests. They look big G gorgeous next to plants like rhodies and azaleas and behind clusters of different kinds of ferns. They even look great with impatiens.
Clumpers can be planted in containers to create little tropical-looking thickets on porches, as long as you give them at least a five-gallon container to call home. If the grass gets too tall, just lop off the top to the height you want, preferably in the fall when bamboos are at their healthiest. Pretty much maintenance free, they can live for years unless you've had the bad luck to buy one that is about to flower. When it does it will sigh a fast good-bye, giving you back your pot for the next, hopefully younger, bamboo. Since bamboos flower only once in every seven to a hundred years, the odds are pretty good that you haven't picked one about to flower.
I already have a favorite. Fargesia nitida Jiuzhaigon IV or "Dwarf Red Fountain" has purple-black culms leading up to compact clusters of leaves. It can grow as high as nine feet and can tolerate temperatures as low as -20 degrees F. A little hard to find, and pretty pricey, this bamboo is worth the hunt. If you can't find or afford it, "Tibetan Princess Bamboo" is my second choice — mostly because of its name. Its culms are also lovely, a cinnamon red. They hold up a delicate textured foliage that can instantly spunk up a dull garden spot. While less expensive (by a lot) than the fountain plant, the princess can be a little picky. It doesn't like exposure or too much wind. With either choice, when there is a breeze, oh, the sound.
This gentle night's breeze
whispering a sublime sound
from bamboo buddha.
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