By ROBIN ROBINSON The Key West Garden Club
"Don't plant bamboo. It will eat your yard," is common landscaping advice. However, there are two types of bamboo, just like people, the runners and the clumpers. Runners may take over a yard, but clumpers maintain a tight compact root that is great for landscaping.
Commonly called wild bamboo (Lasiacis divaricata) it looks like, but is not a true bamboo, however, it is a clumper. It is in a genus of grass and grows branches 12 feet in height. Under trees, they may grow higher, climbing up the branches to the light. Slender, evergreen clums are hollow except at the yellowish nodes, and grow woody as they age. Climbing into tree branches in the hammocks, they end as cascading, understory fountains.
Instead of sprouting small like most plants, wild bamboo stalks arise at their full circumference. Stems shoot upward like a rocket, sometimes at a foot a day, and then they develop fluttering leaves. Native wild bamboo's small and elegant branches dance in the zephyrs. Each new crop of stalks is fed by the foliage of the last crop, like palm trees. But unlike palm trees that can't recover nutrition if cut too green, wild bamboo resprouts immediately.
These clums are tough. Walking through the woods, horizontal branches spread out on the floor of the forest and can trip or snare the walker. If the bamboo is cut or damaged, new sprouts come from the roots. When culms bend and reach the ground they root at the nodes.
Lanceolate-shaped leaves are arranged alternately on the stalks beginning about half way up. Parallel veins feed the 15-inch long and inch wide, smooth-edged, but hairy leaves. Leaves emerge on new growth, each leaf separated by a few inches of shoot. The shrub looks like a miniature bamboo.
Wild bamboo is native. It grows wild in south Florida, the Caribbean and South America. It is also called smallcane or Florida tibisee. It spreads out over fields and in ditches, but does not overrun other vegetation. Cattle and horses feed on the leaves, but new shoots appear almost instantly to replace those eaten. It literally grows out of rocks.
When is a flower not a flower? When it looks like a small seed. The green zygomorphic flower of wild bamboo grows on terminal panicles about 12 inches long. Zygomorphic, meaning having identical halves, refers to the small seed-like green flowers growing on spikelets which are pollinated by the wind. At the base there are two yellow-brown structures called glumes.
An experiment ran to grow wild bamboo from seeds brought only an 11 percent germination rate. Seedlings are not often found around the plant. The best way to propagate is with cuttings. It easily sprouts roots from its nodes. It sprouts as a monocot, like grasses, which means that only one sprig emerges when sprouting. In the wild, small black fruit contain seeds that are spread via birds and small animals that evidently know how to get the seeds to sprout better than humans do.
Wild bamboo grows in well-drained shady areas. It doesn't need a lot of nutrients. It can reach full height in the first year. It is salt wind and water tolerant. Once established, it survives short periods of drought. Actually, it survives many challenges and resumes growth from its compact roots. If it is too wet, it may acquire rust disease.
Plant a clumper not a runner.
The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to work on the historical fort, pull weeds, propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and Award-Winning "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.