Never bother with me old bam­boo

Country Life Every Week - - Spectator -

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

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