The Beauty of Bamboo

PUBLISHED: 13:21 09 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:41 20 February 2013

Phyllostachys is a genus of bamboo from China

Phyllostachys is a genus of bamboo from China

In this January issue we visit a garden in Wadebridge whose owner is a bamboo enthusiast and has over 300 different types

Bamboo as a garden plant has a bad press. Thuggish and invasive. Difficult and expensive. Unpredictable and unreliable. A visit to Michael Bell's National Collection of Phyllostachys soon dispels those myths, says Louise Danks

The National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG) is a charity that, along with botanists, horticulturalists, conservationists, keen amateur and professional gardeners, strives to protect rare or endangered garden plants throughout the British Isles. It carries out research into cultivated plants, where they originate, how they grow, how they are used culturally and their historical importance. It is the aim of the NCCPG and its members to ensure that these plants are propagated, distributed widely and grown wherever possible.

Michael Bell grows bamboo in Wadebridge. In fact, he lives and breathes the plant, and you quickly realise that what he doesn't know about the astonishing group of plants is not worth knowing. His impressive collection is kept on a 11/4 acre plot just outside Wadebridge and at the last count he was the proud guardian of more than 300 different types, including the NCCPG collection of Phyllostachys. This is a genus of bamboo from lowland China, the best known of which is probably Phyllostachys nigra, the black-stemmed bamboo. What's more surprising is that up until 2002, when he moved to this site, these plants were kept in pots. After clearing the space of two-metre-high brambles, he was able to begin the mammoth task of planting his bamboos and some of the larger-growing species have reached a height of over 7m.

Michael's passion for bamboo began with an interest in tropical plants. Around 1960 he started to look at bamboos and realised that there was very little known about these intriguing plants and his curiosity grew. The British Bamboo Society was formed about 15 years ago, Michael was president and described it as a watershed: like-minded bamboo enthusiasts could share knowledge, experiences and plants for the same goal - to understanding this phenomenal plant.

There are no native species of bamboo in Antarctica or Europe, which seems strange as the UK is considered to be one of the best places in the world to grow bamboo. Temperate bamboos come from two main regions. The lowland species need very cold winters to encourage them into a period of dormancy, followed by long, hot, wet summers with high humidity, so our winters are too warm and our summers are too cold and dry for these species. It's not all bad news, as these tend to be bamboos that 'run' and our less-than-perfect conditions stop them running and being quite so invasive and large.

The second area where temperate bamboos thrive is mountain regions where the winters are dry and cold as the water is locked up in ice and the summers are cool and wet. The mountain species love our summers and Cornwall is almost perfect for the clump-forming mountain bamboos. You'll struggle to visit a Cornish garden without seeing at least one specimen, although they are mainly hardy over the whole of the UK. Gardeners and garden owners splashed out on valuable bamboos when they were first introduced around 1890. The reason Cornwall has so many bamboos is because they were thought to be tender and they were originally grown in greenhouses and the most climatically favourable gardens, many of which are found in Cornwall.

The plant's growth rate is truly astonishing. The entire plant acts as a storage vessel for nutrients for most of the year so as to support the rapid growth of the cane - or to give it its botanical name, 'culm' - that can reach its full height in a matter of weeks.

An early-morning visit to Michael's collection proved to be an enlightening experience. A misty but bright morning created the perfect atmosphere in which to view this collection. It was almost as if a corner of the Himalayas had appeared at the end of a wooded lane in Cornwall; the light mist hung above the canes and the sunlight hit the ground through the delicate leaves and struck the coloured canes, highlighting the variety of hues these plants are capable of producing - the rusty orange of Fargesia scabrida is among the most striking. Not only is the range of colours and forms a huge surprise but Michael's collection features a climbing bamboo and a deciduous one.

When choosing a bamboo for your garden, Michael advises avoiding impulse buys and especially smaller bamboos from garden centres. Don't be fooled - a small pot full of perfect-looking foliage may well be the plant's juvenile form and it could easily grow into a two-metre monster when you've planted it out in your garden!

Propagation is mainly done by division and the bigger the division the more likely it is that the new plant will survive. Early autumn is the best time to attempt this as the ground is often wet but still warm from the summer months. This gives the plant time to establish before winter sets in.

Thinning out is an essential maintenance task and can be carried out at any time after the new shoots have appeared. Remove the oldest culms and aim to open the centre of the plant, this will encourage it to grow stronger and also gives a better effect aesthetically. Do not remove more than a quarter of the culms as they act as supports for each other, but do not be afraid to root prune in order to keep the plant in check.

Bamboos can behave beautifully in a pot. Michael points out: "You often see a big bamboo in a small pot; if that's the case then the pot will be crammed full of roots and it'll be almost impossible to feed and water the plant. The best treatment is to over-pot and cut the plant in half every year and re-pot; you can do this at any time after the new shoots have appeared. They're not fussy over soil type; I would use something like John Innes with a slow-release fertiliser." He recommends any of the Fargesia-type bamboos to try in a pot, as they are clump-forming. Try Shibataea or Chusquea in a smaller garden or container.

These plants are beautiful feats of engineering and like any other, when chosen for the right situation, will flourish and perform in exactly the way you had planned. Michael, formerly a chartered mechanical and structural engineer, is more than qualified to appreciate the sophisticated design of bamboo and describes it as "mother nature at its best". Its strength and flexibility, coupled with the fact that weight-for-weight it is as strong as steel, make this plant something to be respected and treasured.

Out of a collection of more than 300 plants, it's no surprise that Michael struggles to point out a favourite; instead, almost every specimen triggers an interesting anecdote. Whether it's the contrasting green sulcus (the shallow groove found running up the cane) which stands out against the bright, golden-yellow canes of Phyllostachys bambusoides 'Castillonis', the giant papery culm sheaths and blue culms of Fargesia albocerea, or even the knobbly-kneed swollen nodes of Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda, the vast array of these amazing plants is breathtaking.

Seeing such a large number of different species growing side by side is fascinating and a visit to this collection will not fail to ignite a passion for these captivating plants. You'll come away full of ideas for your own garden and with a totally renewed interest and a better understanding, as well as being equipped to choose a bamboo for your own particular situation.

To visit the collection by appointment contact: Michael Bell, 3 Clarence Terrace, Park Road, Wadebridge, PL27 7NG. (01208) 812892

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