by Jeremy Bugarchich, Curator of Collections
San Diego Botanic Garden’s Bamboo Garden is a lush forest filled with a wide variety of flora from all over the world. Tranquility can overwhelm the senses when you first embrace the array of the towering plant life that is our bamboo collection. Complimented with an assortment of brightly colored flowers and foliage, this garden can bring peace to any day.
Bamboo are an incredible and diverse grass. Yes, bamboo are in the grass family, Poaceae, and is further defined under the Bambusoideae sub-family. There are approximately 1,450 species of bamboo comprised over 115 genera. Like other grasses, bamboo have a hollow stem, called a culm, and unlike most trees, do not produce a woody bark. They can be easy to maintain and will thrive with supplemental watering and fertilizer like any common lawn. Some species of bamboo have a tendency to overtake and require a fair amount of water, while many others can be effortlessly managed. Knowing the right species to grow can make all the difference.
Most bamboo are native to warm and wet tropical climates and many to warm temperate climates. Bamboo can be found all over the world including Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. Several, under the Arundinaria genus, are even native to the Southeastern United States. Bamboo is a versatile and distinguished economic crop with extensive cultural significance throughout the continent of Asia and amongst its other native regions. Many species are used as building material due to its durability, while others are used as a common food source for both humans and other animals.
Before the giant pandas left the San Diego Zoo in 2019, their browse team often foraged though our collections to feed their finicky pandas. The pandas’ reported favorite was our Bambusa beecheyana or Beechey Bamboo. It has been referred to as the ‘chocolate cake’ of bamboo in the panda world, having little nutritional value but preferred over ‘vegetable’ bamboo as the pandas see it. The Beechey Bamboo is a large bamboo species, native to the Guangdong province of China. The culms of this species are green and can reach up to 50 feet tall. Although the pandas enjoy its leaves, humans can enjoy its edible shoots.
A favorite bamboo to see in our Bamboo Garden is our Dendrocalamus asper ‘Hitam’ – a giant bamboo species native to Southeast Asia. ‘Hitam’ is an Indonesian word meaning ‘black’ describing this cultivar’s black color, most bamboo culms are grey-green. The culms of this species can reach up to 60 feet tall and 5-6 inches in diameter. It is a species that is often used as both building material and new shoots are eaten by humans.
Our bamboo collection consists of over 140 different species and cultivars, with the majority of plants grown within our curated Bamboo Garden. We have numerous specimens planted throughout the Garden as well; with many located in our Rainforest Garden.
The Bamboo Garden, established in the early 1980s, was the first planned interpretive space in our Garden. In the early history of San Diego Botanic Garden, like many beginning gardens, much of the landscape was undefined and looked very different from how it does today. Planted by many eager staff and volunteers over the years, it took time and forethought to create our themed exhibit that took decades to flourish – and for us to appreciate.
The American Bamboo Society, founded at San Diego Botanic Garden in 1979, was the inspiration to create our beautiful bamboo grove. As botanists, collectors and hobbyists united their common interests at the Garden, a large variety of bamboo was procured on behalf of our young botanic garden. This bounty of bamboo was planted and eventually grew into the Bamboo Garden we see and enjoy today. In 2013 our bamboo collection was recognized and accredited by the Plant Collection Network under the American Public Garden Association. San Diego Botanic Garden’s extensive bamboo collection is the largest inground collection of bamboo in a North American public garden.
Many who have visited the Garden in the past have heard of the Dragon Bamboo, Dendrocalamus giganteus, one of the largest bamboo species in the world. It is a dense clumping form of bamboo, native to Southeast Asia, where a single culm can reach over 60 feet. While never quite reaching that height in San Diego, this species of bamboo became one of the most notable plants in the history of the Garden, with our culms reaching over 50 feet. A sight to see if you had the opportunity, however our specimen flowered in 2012. Like many bamboo, D. giganteus is a monocarpic species, which means once it flowers it dies. Fortunately, seed collected from this grand specimen was successfully grown. The Garden has shared its progenies with other institutions including the San Diego Zoo, and one was reintroduced back into our Bamboo Garden in 2018. While it is currently flourishing, it will be several years until it attains the stature of its predecessor.
Our Bamboo Garden is a true example of how people can connect with nature. The diversity in color, form and size in bamboo is something to be in awe over and these plants inspire us to do more. Our current aspirations are not only to continue to grow our collection but also to expand – but expand in the right way. We want to show the public not all bamboo are water-hungry or aggressive. There are many species native to warm, drier climates we expect to introduce in our landscape in the coming future, several from Mexico. These introductions are in the name of conservation as well as education. As a botanic garden, it is our responsibility and privilege not only to expand what plants we can grow in Southern California, but also to increase the knowledge of our institution and guests.