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Is bamboo a friend or foe?

Bamboo can be seen growing in various locations throughout North Florida. -Photo by Jeffry Boatright

By Jeffry Boatright

The landscape of North Florida is quite diverse, considering the range of trees and vegetation we enjoy. Residents and visitors alike truly adore the majestic oaks, stately pecan trees, beautiful cedar trees and countless other species of trees and plants that are spotted about our region. Occasionally, we even recognize tall clumps of bamboo providing privacy or a hint of tropical flavor around a home site or commercial venue. Regardless of its appeal, the common question remains for many regarding bamboo. Is bamboo a friend or a foe?

Historically known for its unwanted spread, the woody, treelike species we know as bamboo remains green throughout the year. Of course, there are hundreds of varieties of the tropical and semitropical grass, which has hollow stems and staled blades. While it has proven to provide seclusion and tropical appeal to landscape, concerns persist over bamboo’s tendency to spread, overtaking areas where it is not wanted.

Some varieties of bamboo, however, allow homeowners to plant the beautiful vegetation, which can reach heights of over 15 feet, without fear of undesired proliferation. For instance, Nobles Greenhouse and Nursery in Live Oak offers Fern Leaf Clumping Bamboo, which is a noninvasive variety. Instead, it remains in clumps, providing year-around greenery, privacy and appeal.

In addition to its landscape value, there are varieties of bamboo, which are conducive to our climate, that can be grown commercially. Considering all the products derived from bamboo, the prospect of marketing the woody stalks is surely worthy of exploring.

Among other uses, bamboo is marketed in the form of flooring, furniture, decoration, fabrics and clothing. Students of weaponry certainly recognize the historical significance of bamboo. Though rarely used for weaponry in the 21st century, the woody plant handily sufficed for centuries in building archery bows and arrows, as well as blowguns.

We often think of bamboo’s popularity as food and timber in parts of Asia, but according to Suwannee County Horticulture Agent Carolyn S. Saft, North America also has a couple of bamboo varieties that are suitable for human consumption.

While only a small parcel of land might be required to produce bamboo commercially, concerns regarding containment of the prolific plant certainly increase on the commercial side of the spectrum. However, with adequate planning and care growers can suppress the unwanted spread of their grow field.

Clumpers, such as the Fern Leaf Clumping Bamboo, spread only a few inches per year. According to a study by the University of Kentucky, however, most bamboo varieties are classified as runners. Aggressively spreading several feet per year, these runners, which are usually among the commercial varieties, can quickly invade adjoining property.

According to the University of Kentucky, commercial bamboo production is a labor intensive proposition, especially during the beginning years of crop production. Research indicates that it can take more than seven years for a grove to reach its full potential. In most cases, culms, which are the matured shoots, require three to five years of growth before harvesting for wood use.

While it might be enticing to attempt producing bamboo commercially, there are many things to consider. Initially, there is a substantial investment to consider. Along with land preparation, material for the root barrier must be purchased and it would be ill-advised to attempt growing any invasive bamboo without adequate root barrier. Additionally, the investment plants, establishing the plants and an irrigation system soon escalate the costs of bamboo production.

A major concern identified by the University of Kentucky Extension Service parallels the concern that prospective growers from our region might have. That concern is the absence of clear market channels for farm-grown bamboo in the region.

While growing bamboo commercially might prove quite risky and challenging, clumper varieties could render a solution to rapid growing landscape, as well as wholesale opportunities. Simply put, what might prove to be a foe of one person, could be another’s friend. Whether a fan of bamboo, or bamboozled by the fast growing, woody stemmed perennial grasses, we simply cannot deny the uses of bamboo are countless.

Noninvasive bamboo offers tropical appeal and provides privacy. -Photo by Jeffry Boatright

Fern Leaf Clumping Bamboo is conducive to our climate and can reach heights around 15 feet.
-Photo by Jeffry Boatright