Bamboo Plant: Get to Know It Before You Grow It

Learn why bamboo plant is either loved or hated, plus how it's used and how to care for the popular houseplant called "lucky bamboo."

July 30, 2020

Mention "bamboo" among gardeners and you’ll likely find there’s no middle ground: people either love it or loathe it.

Photo by: Shutterstock/Joe Chakgree

Shutterstock/Joe Chakgree

Bamboo can grow quickly into a tall, dense grove that provides welcome privacy, with a touch of the exotic, for a backyard retreat. Left untended, some bamboo species can creep across the lawn, into flower beds and up through cracks in concrete, in less time than you’d expect. For some gardeners, "invasive" is too mild a term. "Monstrous" more aptly describes bamboo's wayward habits. Here are some facts; you can decide which side you’re on.

What Is Bamboo?

Technically, bamboo is a very tall, very big grass with large, woody stems — called culms — divided into sections by nodes. They spread by tough underground stems, or rhizomes.

The two types of bamboo are defined by the growth habits of their rhizomes:

  • Clumping bamboo is fairly well-mannered. Its rhizomes grow in an enlarging circle but stay close to the parent plant, so the spread is steady, but slow.

  • Running bamboo is the type that gives bamboo its bad reputation because of its habit of quickly spreading its woody rhizomes out and away from the parent plant, sending its shoots up through lawns and garden beds.

How Bamboo Is Used

Dwarf varieties can be used as groundcover — some grow to only a foot or two — and can help stabilize areas subject to erosion. They can also be grown in containers. Don’t be fooled by its short stature, though. Unless you provide a barrier at planting time (we talk about this later), this one can also quickly run out of bounds.

The tall varieties — culms that grow to 20 feet or more — are what you want to create an effective screen, and homeowners can use its leafy foliage to separate themselves from their neighbors. It can also be a sound barrier, muffling street noise.

Giant timber species, which can grow to 40 to 50 feet tall or taller, with 4-inch-diameter culms, are the varieties chosen for building and construction — the use of bamboo as a flooring material, for example, is seen as a viable, renewable-resource option to hardwood. In a suitably sized landscape, these massive grasses can be awe-inspiring, but their rampant growth must also be reined in.

How to Choose Bamboo

There are hundreds of species of bamboo, and what you select should be based on several factors: how you want to use it, how big you want it to get and whether you have a shady or sunny location.

Some species also have culms in striking colors — vibrant yellow, cinnamon red or glossy black, for instance — that stand out in a landscape.

If you choose to plant running bamboo, expect that it will run out of bounds. You can try to contain it at planting time by sinking strong plastic barriers around the planting area at least 30 inches deep and 3 inches above the ground to keep the roots confined. Opinions differ on whether this works or not.

What About Lucky Bamboo?

The first thing you need to know about lucky bamboo is that it’s not bamboo at all, but a plant in the genus Dracaena (specifically, D. Sanderiana), trained and shaped into its customary bamboo-like appearance. Its close kin includes two other popular houseplants: corn plant and Madagascar dragon tree.

Photo by: Shutterstock/Unkas Photo

Shutterstock/Unkas Photo

These are relatively low-maintenance houseplants that can grow in water. Use filtered water or tap water that has been set out for several hours to allow chlorine, which is harmful to Dracaena, to escape. Change the water every week or so. Lucky bamboo can also grow in soil.

Keep lucky bamboo out of direct light and away from extreme heat or cold, and feed it every couple of months with a diluted solution of plant food (plant care specialists suggest about 1/10 the recommended strength).

To maintain its shape, remove extra shoots that grow from the stalk with a sharp knife. Bonus: those cut-off shoots can be rooted to grow new plants. Dip the ends in rooting hormone powder and let them dry overnight, then place the shoots in water. New roots should begin to emerge before long.

A final note: lucky bamboo leaves are mildly toxic, so keep them out of reach of pets or children who may nibble on them.

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