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Where does bamboo grow in Utah?

Published: Sunday, July 29 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Dennis Adamson

This week's column is going to turn the tables on my readers. Usually I try to dispense information, but this week I am seeking it.

For some background, read on. Bamboo has fascinated me for much of my life. Early on it was with the poles or stems that were used for fishing poles, decorating, flagpoles and even high jump poles. The hollow stems and tough woody material made them ideal for many purposes.

In my horticulture career, I have been fascinated at these huge plants that often grew in stands so thick they were almost impenetrable. Large plantings in Southern California, Georgia, Florida and other areas were ornamental delights in many gardens.

I have never really allowed that fascination to flourish here in Utah. I have known gardeners who cultivated the materials, but they were few in number. During recent months, some Master Gardeners and I have decided to investigate further.

Is bamboo not grown much in Utah because it does not grow here, or is it because few gardeners have tried — or if they have tried, have they been trying to grow the wrong species?

With that in mind, I would like to know where bamboo is growing successfully here and what kinds are growing. It would be most helpful to know the plant genus and species if possible, because most plant identifications are based on the flower, and many bamboos only flower every 50 years or more and the plant dies after flowering. It is also helpful to know how long it has grown in the area.

Let me make the point here that the plant most often called bamboo in Utah is not. The bamboo lookalike is giant reed grass, or Arundo donax. While the leaves and stems resemble bamboo, it is a different plant. Another plant sometimes called Mexican or Japanese bamboo is also unrelated.

Unlike some grass species, bamboo has a central stalk with attached leaves. Their size, texture and coloration vary greatly. Bamboos are the largest true grasses on earth.

Giant bamboos grow 80 feet or more, while dwarf types make small shrubs or hedges and even tall ground covers. Worldwide, bamboo is of great economic, cultural and even culinary value.

Like other grasses, bamboos are classified as either "clumping" or "running." Both spread by rhizomes, but with running types, the rhizomes grow further away from the plant before sending up new shoots, while clumping types usually send up shoots inches from the main clump.

Clumping types are less invasive, but all bamboo plants form ever-expanding clumps. This has given rise to a bad reputation as being very invasive plants. The best way to prevent that is to grow the plants in large pots sunk into the ground or make an impenetrable root barrier that will prevent the roots from spreading.

Some bamboos are deciduous and shed their leaves; others are evergreen and keep them throughout the winter. This characteristic varies depending on the winter temperature. In very cold winters, some kinds die back to the ground but will send up new shoots in the spring.

While they are not very common, they are planted in several locations. After doing some additional research and with the help of you as readers reporting in, I plan to write another column to share information on which ones are doing well here in northern Utah.

The Ogden River Parkway has a couple of kinds growing there. Hogle Zoo reportedly has several in the Asian Highland exhibit that I will be checking out. Lagoon planted bamboo by the Samurai Ride and Rattlesnake Rapids, and I will check those to see how they are growing.

The International Peace Gardens at Jordan Park has what is likely Phyllostachys rubromarginata growing near the Chinese pavilion. They prune it back to keep it below the roof line but in full sun, it would likely grow to 15 feet. It has grown there for many years.

With your help, we can learn where these plants are growing and under what conditions they are thriving. Sharing this information with local and readers might add some interesting new plants to the Utah plant palette.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.

Garden tips

Please send information on bamboo plantings in Northern Utah to Gretchen Campbell at gcampbell@thanksgivingpoint.org or 801-768-7443.

Garden Talks in the Park are complimentary one-hour garden talks. On Aug. 1 at 7:30 p.m., the topic is "Container Change-Outs." Learn how to refresh and renew your summer pots for the upcoming fall season. No tickets are required and all ages are welcome. The Brigham Young Historic Park is on the southeast corner of State Street and North Temple.

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