Marvellous Hardy Bamboo
05 July 2014 - by Lizzy Browne

There cannot be an exotic gardener amongst us who hasn’t suffered some loss of plants this dreadful winter (-7 last night!!), but at least with the hardy bamboos I can sleep soundly; they are after all the great stalwarts of the exotic winter garden. Being so diverse and versatile, they lend themselves to use in a variety of ways - as an evergreen hedge, backdrop to a border, or as feature plants by themselves. And at this time of year, its a comfort to know that despite this cruel, never-ending winter, just below the surface, they’ll be preparing to send forth this seasons new culms.

Possibly the most admired of any plant at the nursery is our clump of Phyllostachys vivax f. aureocaulis. When the late afternoon sun illuminates it, it glows. The effect is simply breathtaking – even bored children, dragged in by their parents to yet another nursery are captivated by it. This particular clump was lifted from a collector’s garden in March 2007. It is planted in dry soil on the edge of a woodland bed. For the last three seasons it has sent up respectable-sized culms and formed a magnificent tight clump. We removed the top third of the canes, as one should when planting, to help it establish. The effect was so attractive, like a multi-branched tree (I think that’s what’s called an oxymoron, but hey), that we’ve continued this procedure each year. It really is the easiest plant to prune. No need for ladders – simply bend a cane, snip, release, job done. It’ll be interesting to see what it does this growing season. Will it start to wander, as the texts books tell us it will in dry soil? We have another Phyllostachys vivax aureocaulis planted at the nursery in more moist soil. Now this does wander. It’s growing next to a monster Gunnera manicata, and has pushed canes through its crown, like a form of Japanese torture. We may have to carry out a rescue operation this month.

Bamboo seekers often overlook Phyllostachys humilis. It has beautiful coloured canes, far subtler than the flashy P. vivax aureocaulis, and these are not always apparent in young plants. But it also has other wonderful attributes. If you have a small garden but must have a Phyllostachys (as everyone must) it is the shortest growing, reaching on average only 3m in the UK. It has quite small green leaves but they are produced in abundance and have a lovely blue under-side, which is very apparent in even the slightest breeze. The canes emerge olive/green and change over the season to green, aging to orange/brown. Mature clumps have canes in these three different colours.

Phyllostachys nigra is well known and justifiably popular.

Well-pruned specimens, with lower leaves removed, never fail to impress but they should always be planted in full sun for best cane colouration. In hot summers the canes become jet black with white bands of leaf scars below the nodes. We have a clump, maturing well, unfortunately at the back of the border so its canes are somewhat obscured. This has been planted for five years and has made a good tidy, well-behaved clump with nice thick canes. On a facing border, we had to remove a clump of Phyllostachys nigra after just two years to stop it rampaging through the whole bed at an alarming rate. When customers ask if Phyllostachys nigra runs I truthfully don’t know what to say.

Chusquea culeou is an attention grabber.

Ours seemed to sulk in the ground when planted, not doing very much, for two years. Suddenly, last summer, fat, pink shoots appeared around the perimeter of the weedy looking clump. These rapidly shot skyward, with branches emerging from the leaf sheaths on some of the culms to give the distinctive bottlebrush effect. Other culms have retained their leaf sheaths throughout the winter. It’s a striking and architectural plant and very much in demand but frustratingly, always in short supply and devilishly difficult to propagate. I’m really excited at the prospect of this years culms.

But for real culm drama, the rare and wonderful Phyllostachys iridescens deserves an Oscar.

Ours is planted in the poorest, driest, shadiest position at the back of the nursery. Each year the beast wanders yards and yards from its original position and we have to ruthlessly kick off any unwanted culms. Thick, purple-sheathed giant shoots emerge rapidly in to very deep green canes with a white bloom. Mature canes develop distinctive orange vertical stripes. How far it will try to run this year remains to be seen. Apparently 4m is not unusual. We wait in excitement and trepidation.

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