Identifying Bamboo

I have frequented many bamboo discussion forums over the last 15 years and I’ve noticed a couple of recurring questions from new bamboo enthusiasts, one of which I hope to shed light upon here.  An oft repeated topic regards bamboo identification.  Many times I’ve seen posts requesting an ID of either a newly acquired pot of bamboo or a grove that someone discovered while out & about.  The poster is careful to get close up photos of the leaves & branches and to also include some profile shots.  The usual reply by forum members is either no reply at all or more likely a quick reply basically telling the inquirer to forget about it, not gonna happen.  With other types of plants it can be fairly easy to get an identification of the species merely by posting a picture on the appropriate plant forum.  With bamboo it is very difficult to properly ID species from photos of the foliage – and nearly impossible to ID potted bamboo plants.

NOT BAMBOO!

Before I go any further with bamboo ID’s I’d like to ID 3 plants that are NOT BAMBOO.  A high ratio of bamboo ID requests regard these 3 non-bamboo.

Lucky Bamboo may well be lucky but it isn’t bamboo, rather it is a plant named Dracaena sanderiana.

lucky
Not bamboo! Lucky ‘Bamboo’
dracaena-sanderiana
Not bamboo! Dracaena sanderiana

 

knotweed
Not bamboo! Polygonum cuspidatum aka Knotweed quite an invasive plant in New England
arundo-donax
Not bamboo! Arundo donax, quite commonly colonizing areas in FL, TX, CA

 

 

arundo_donax2
Not bamboo! Notice how the leaves of Arundo donax wrap the branch where they emerge, bamboo does not do this.
Looking for Clues

With a few exceptions bamboo foliage is generally inadequate for providing clues as to the species.  The exceptions include species that have unique features that can be easily recognized.  An example is Phyllostachys aurea in a mature grove.  The lower portions of some of the culms in the grove will contain distorted nodes/internodes mostly unique to Phy aurea such as in the photos below from the Bambooweb.info database.

aurea1
Phy aurea with congested/distorted internodes

These compressed lower internodes are rarely exhibited in other species, but only mature groves will display this feature.  Still, I have found that young Phy aurea plants often will have a swollen portion just below the node such as in this 2nd photo – notice how about a half-inch below the branches the cane/culm suddenly becomes narrower?  This feature is not limited to Phy aurea but it is a good clue in combination with other factors.  In the Phy aurea clan there are several forms generally considered cultivars/sports of the plain green form but with some differences in culm or leaf coloration but all members will share the unique characteristics of the type form.  So if you are looking for an ID of a bamboo with compressed internodes then start with the Phy aurea clan and see if you can hone in on which cultivar it is.  Another clue of this family of bamboo is that they tend to start branching lower down than on other members of the Phyllostachys genus.

aurea3
Swollen node on juvenile Phy aurea

In a very broad sense, it is only possible to visually ID bamboo by examining freshly emerging new shoots that are between 3″ & 18″ tall on bamboo that are mature enough to produce adult shoots.  The previous sentence contains two very noteworthy points – since most bamboo only produce shoots once per year your access to observing the shoots is very narrow, and juvenile bamboo will usually exhibit characteristics that will betray identification.  It is somewhere after the 3rd growing season before the adult foliage is produced.  So add these two points together and if you have a new pot of bamboo you’d like to ID you might have to wait for a narrow window of time perhaps 3 years out.

2006decora
New shoots of Phy mannii ‘Decora’ initially wrapped in very colorful culm sheaths stained wine and sometimes green at the edges

To scientifically & properly identify bamboo species there are anatomical features that experts will focus on.  These features are primarily present on the emerging shoots, particularly on the culm sheaths/culm leaves – new bamboo shoots are wrapped in foliage called culm sheaths.  The culm sheaths which dry up & detach on most species in a few weeks and will often have unique coloration, marking, or other unique aspects communicated through the presence and structure of things like auricles, ligules, fimbriae and sheath blades.  I have yet to acquire a working knowledge of identification via examination of these anatomical features and you’ll need to look elsewhere for that information.

2012physheath
Detached culm sheaths, shiny on the side that was wrapping the new culm

I base my ID’s of bamboo primarily on the markings & timing of emerging shoots.  In some cases upon sheath fall when the new culms are exposed they may offer additional clues.  For identification of existing groves the geographic location combined with how well the bamboo is developing can be invaluable clues.  For example, in climate zones 5 – 6, NE US, Great Lakes region – if you see bamboo there is every likelihood that it will be Phy aureosulcata due to the fact that it is the most cold tolerant of any widely distributed bamboo.  In Slightly warmer zones 6 – 8 the most common species will be Phy aurea due to its wide distribution in areas like the SE US, Texas, California.   An interesting sidenote for me is that the most commonly distributed bamboo in Europe is likely Phy viridiglaucescens, a bamboo hardy to zone 6 but one very rare in the US, I have tried 3 times to obtain one and each proved to be something else – which I figured out by examining the culm sheaths after a few years.

 

 

2006aygshoot

Phy aureosulcata

2010physpec6

Spectabilis

2012phyharbinv

Phy aureosulcata ‘Harbin Inversa’

2008phyayggenu4x

Phy aureosulcata genuflecting

 

2012plmacu

Pleioblastus maculatus

 

2012phyplataglossa

Phyllostachys platyglossa

2012phyhuh

Unknown Phyllostachys sp.

 

2010phymoso

Phyllostachys edulis ‘Moso’

 

2012oddvvx

Phy vivax  Huangwenzhu Inversa oddball shoot betraying ID

2006vxaureoc

Phy vivax ‘Aureocaulis’

 

2010phyviridis2

Phy viridis

 

2010phykwang1

Phy Kwangsiensis

 

2012phyfimbrig

Phy fimbriligula

 

2006iridescensshoot

Phy iridescens

 

2010phymeguro

Phy nigra clan

 

2012phys32

Phy Shanghai 3

 

2012phys31

Phy Shanghai 3

 

2012phyrutila

Phy rutila

 

2012phyprae2

Phy praecox

 

2012phyprae1

Phy praecox

 

2012phynuda2

Phy nuda

 

2008phymandec

Phy mannii ‘Decora’

 

2006decora

Phy mannii ‘Decora’

 

2006decora1

Phy mannii ‘Decora’

 

2008phymakinoi

Phy makinoi

2012phymakinoi

Phy makinoi

 

2010phyhumil

Phy humilis

 

2006dulcisshoot1

Phy dulcis

phydulcci

 

2006arcanashoot 11-45-34

Phy arcana

 

2006rubro2

Phy rubromarginata

2012phyrubro

Phy rubro

 

 

2012phyparv

Phy parvifolia

2012phyparv1

Phy parvifolia

 

2010phystim

Phy heteroclada?

 

2006heterosolid

Phy heteroclada

 

2012phyglcnotso

Phy glauca ‘Notso’

2006glaucyunz

Phy glauca ‘Yunzhu’

 

2008phybiss

Phy bissettii

 

2008phybisscull

Phy bissettii

 

2012phyprobeg

Phy propinqua ‘Beijing’

2008phyliyugan2

Phy propinqua ‘Beijing’

 

2010phyangusta1

Phy angusta

 

2012phyatrov11

Phy atrovaginata

2012phyatrovcan

Phy atrovaginata

 

 

dscf6003

Sinobambusa tootsik ‘Albostriata’

dscf6093

Phy bambusoides ‘Albostriata’

 

dscf6151

Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’

 

dscf6199

Bambusa textilis ‘Gracilis’

dscf6223

Bambusa ventricosa ‘Kimmei’

dscf6180

Bambusa emiensis

2012phyauritacls

Phy aurita

 

 

 

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