Never bother with me old bamboo
BAMBOO is my favourite plant. I go along with the poet William Plomer (1903– 73) in his Bamboo: a ballad for two voices, in which the husband says ‘I love, bamboo, your fidgets/and sudden sighs, bamboo’. His wife hates the plant: ‘I cannot stand the strain/bamboo, I cannot stand it/your whispering campaign!’
Curiously, Hew is in two minds about the plant—not because it whispers to him, but because it’s so damnably tough and invasive. It comes in two varieties: the clumping, which is relatively harmless, and the invasive, which can send up shoots through flagstone paths and, when tackled, responds with iron-clad determination. Even so, I love it and will let it run wild.
It must be one of the most useful plants known to man: you can build houses of it, make drainpipes and shoes, you can eat its shoots and weave it into windbreaks. Those fine conical hats you see in paddy fields are made of bamboo and so are the mundane stakes that hold up delphiniums and tomato plants. And it looks so elegant and decorative. Virtually every Chinese calligrapher of note painted it with nothing more than brush strokes.
There is a story that bamboo varieties flower only once every seven years or so, that each type flowers all at once and that the effort is fatal to the plant. You have to save it by collecting the seed. I’m not sure how true this is.
Then, there’s the huge range of bamboo, 91 genera and more than 1,000 species—and counting. These vary from a tiny one—not much taller than grass, but still a determined invader—to giant bamboos that form trackless forests from the Himalayas to South America. They come with culms (not stems, please), which can be black, gold or striped, with tiny leaves on big plants and huge leaves on small types.
I have several in my garden, including Chusquea couleou, an elegant, 6ft-tall clumper and a tiny invasive one that’s Hew’s nemesis. There’s also a large-leaved, 6ft one that I was given from Ruskin’s garden at Brantwood in Cumbria.
Botanists are constantly renaming the varieties—there may be a scientific reason for this, but it’s maddening. Saddest of all is the disappearance of Sinarundinaria murielae, now known as Thamnocalamus spathaceus. As a result, the memory of Muriel, daughter of the botanist discoverer, has just been dropped. And one of my favourites, a bamboo with near-black stems, Phyllostachys nigra is now divided into nigra Boryana, nigra Henonsis and nigra Punctata.
Even the Bamboo Society, which promotes the plant in Britain, complains about ‘the shifting sands of bamboo nomenclature’. My answer is just to ignore the whole thing and talk about the black culms, the stripey ones and the golden ones. I haven’t been struck down by an avenging botanist yet.
Britain is not a natural bamboo environment and even the nurseries don’t seem to stock many of its varieties, but, at Lanivet near Bodmin, the plant was grown, largely to provide canes for tomatoes and the like.
In its 1989 newsletter, the Bamboo Society says: ‘A recce of this company has revealed a vehicle-breakdown company operating out of the old canecuring sheds and warehouses and some mediocre housing estate being built on the old growing fields. There is a lot of Pseudosasa japonica and Semiarundinaria fastuosa in the spaces between the houses.’
I bet all that has gone in the 28 years since this was written and that there’s virtually no link with the old bamboo past. Worse still, the pub, once known as The Panda, is now just the boring Lanivet Inn, although its sign is still a panda, munching a bit of bamboo. What a shame.
‘It must be one of the most useful plants known to man