So, I’ve been looking for a plant to screen a gap in the hedge that looks right into the neighbors’ backyard (and trampoline). I thought a well-behaved clumping bamboo might do the trick, and I checked out the helpful website of Bamboo Garden Nursery near Portland, Oregon.
It seemed the common and quite hardy (to Zone 5) Fargesia nitida looked like a good candidate. Then I saw this cryptic message:
“The F. nitida we sell are new seedlings with no risk of flowering for the next 100 years.”
Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bamboo flowering. They’re not that showy in flower—kind of homely actually—but I couldn’t recall ever seeing any kind of plume or flower at all. Why not?
Apparently, Fargesia nitida is one of many kinds of bamboo that engage in “gregarious flowering.” After a hundred years or so, all of the plants belonging to that species will flower and die. That’s right—all of the plants derived from the same seed 120 years ago will spontaneously bloom at the same time worldwide, and soon after, die.
That’s not how garden plants are supposed to work. Your ornamental grass or perennial plant gets crowded, you divide it, and it’s vigorous again. It gets crowded again, you divide it, ad infinitum. But bamboo flat out dies—all of those plants which came from the same original seed. Which means you can’t save cultivars that you would normally keep growing through division. That special variegated selection that you paid a bundle for? Gone forever. That nice hefty clump that appears to be just hitting its stride? It will flower and die, if it’s not a new seedling. No one knows why or how this happens.
Of course, Bamboo Garden Nursery goes over it in more detail, explaining that not all bamboos are gregarious bloomers, and that sometimes flowering bamboo can be saved from death by cutting back the flowering culms and fertilizing, and that flowering and fruiting bamboo is an opportunity to discover new cultivars. But the disclaimers don’t diminish the fact that bamboo is one weird, incredible plant.
Then I stumbled upon a Nova episode from 2009 that told of another bamboo that grows in a remote area of India. This bamboo, Melocanna bambusoides, blooms every 48 years, coinciding with terrible periodic famines in the area. This is a big bamboo with a big fruit, and when it forms, the rat population explodes. And when the rats have multiplied and eaten all the bamboo fruit, and then multiplied again, they swarm into the farmers’ rice fields and eat every grain there.
The video also gave some crazy facts about bamboo: It can grow 1 meter in a 24-hour period. It was the first plant to emerge from the wreckage after the bombing of Hiroshima. It is 10 times stronger than steel and is used as scaffolding for workers putting up skyscrapers.
And it presented one idea I’d never heard before. Dr. Daniel Janzen of the University of Pennsylvania offers a theory regarding the relationship between bamboo and chickens!
He says that wild chickens, which are a type of pheasant, co-evolved with a gregarious-flowering bamboo. This pheasant-chicken developed the ability to produce a lot of eggs when food was plentiful—that is, when the bamboo was producing its seed. When humans starting feeding them, they continued that high rate of egg production, and we decided to keep them around.
Maybe… but which came first, the chicken or the bamboo?