It is amazing to me still that few people know the genus Fargesia. There are few plants that can rival the merits of this woody grass — fast-growing, cold-tolerant, evergreen, shade-tolerant and deer-resistant. A perfect under-story screening, the leafy stems sway in the slightest breeze and bend but don't break under snow cover. I must first tell you that I am tired of all the horror stories of bamboos invading suburban yards. The general misconception of such bad behavior needs to be redirected to the negligent homeowners. These so-called "invasive" bamboos are leptomorph — having monopodial running rhizomes like many kinds of turf grass. These bamboos can spread vigorously and definitely need to be managed. All species of Phyllostachys, Sasa, Shibataea, Pseudosasa and Pleioblastus are running bamboos. Unfortunately these are the bamboos most of the general public know and are afraid of.
Fargesia are bamboos that are pachymorph — having sympodial clumping roots like the ornamental grass, Panicum. These bamboos enlarge slowly, forming a dense clump. The only genus of cold-hardy bamboos is Fargesia. All forms of Fargesia are clumping, noninvasive bamboo. (Nomenclature note: Taxonomists are struggling with a sub-section of Fargesia, so you may see some listed as the genus Borinda. However, Borinda are much less cold-hardy than Fargesia.)
Expanding to America
Fargesia are perennial, woody evergreen grasses. They evolved primarily as understory plants in the mountain forests of China, living under pines on slopes and along streams. Neighbors include the well-known garden plants of rhododendron, hydrangea and mahonia.
Until recently, there were only a couple of species of Fargesia available to the American garden, imported more than 100 years ago from wild-collected plants originating from China. Within the species F. nitida, multiple clones were in cultivation, showing varying forms and diversity. During the past five years, most of these clones have begun flowering. And in the case of this species, which is monocarpic, flowering results in the death of the plant. Obviously, this is not a desired phenomenon in the landscape. But new genotypes have arisen from these mass flowerings. Very few have made it to the trade, because field testing and selection takes many years.
For decades, only one other Fargesia was available for home gardeners. F. murieliae, which was the original collection of E.H. Wilson. Only one genotype was in cultivation, and all specimens flowered and died in the 1990s. Resulting from this flowering are many un-named seedlings, and they vary widely in their characteristics.
Other types of Fargesia have been cultivated during the past 10 years in the U.S. These are great additions to the palette of woody plants, since these are indeed evergreen, permanent additions which mix well with traditional plants like rhododendron and hemlock as understory screen plants or single specimens.
This species is not well known, yet it has the most beautiful arching habit and tolerates not only the freezing winters but heat and humidity. It was first introduced by United Kingdom plant guru Roy Lancaster, coming from northern Sichuan and southern Gansu, China. It can reach a height of 15 feet, but normally grows to 10 feet high under average conditions. It's hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9.
F. robusta 'Pingwu' Green Screen has been cultivated as 'Pingwu' in Europe for more than a decade. It is very upright, with persistent culm (stems) sheaths that add spring interest and texture. A clumping bamboo perfect for use as a hedge or screening plant, it has the great benefit of its noninvasive root system and robust size. This exciting new bamboo holds up well in the heat and humidity of the Southeastern U. S., unlike other Fargesia types. The maximum height is 18 feet and it's hardy in Zones 6-9.
F. rufa 'Oprins Selection' Green Panda was cultivated as Fargesia 'Rufa' in Europe for several years. Oprins Plant NV received a new plant introduction award at Boskoop in Holland for this form in 2003. Subsequently, it was introduced into the United States in 2003 as Green Panda. This clumping, noninvasive bamboo is extremely cold hardy and heat tolerant, and has enormous potential in landscapes across the U.S. and Canada. It grows into a large clump (6-8 feet wide) with arching stems. The maximum height is 10 feet and culm diameter is 0.5 inches. It's hardy in Zones 5-9. Originally from Gansu, China, it is a favorite food of the giant panda. Remarkably, this form grows well in shade as well as full sun. It can grow in a wide variety of environments, from Atlanta to Boston to Chicago to Portland.
F. scabrida 'Oprins Selection' Asian Wonder is a new introduction originating from China. This clumping bamboo has an interesting overall character of very narrow leaves and a graceful appearance. Stems show great color, with orange culm sheaths and steely-blue new culms. Culms mature to olive green. Maximum height is approximately 16 feet. It's hardy in Zones 5-8. This bamboo prefers sun to partial shade.
Propagation of temperate bamboos can be accomplished by traditional vegetative division, by seed (when available) or by micropropagation. Traditional vegetation is the most simple and the most widely used method. But it is both labor sensitive and time sensitive, as the plants are quite vulnerable to stress during their active shooting periods. Seed propagation is rare due to the irregular and/or infrequent flowering cycles of most bamboos.
Micropropagation of bamboo is the best method for mass production. It can be done from seeds or from meristematic tissue, and from type species or selected clones.
It takes about nine months from initiation of the meristematic tissue to a rooted plug, and an additional three to six months from a rooted plug into a gallon-size pot for a saleable plant. The best time to plant in the landscape is spring.
Fargesia contains wonderful, noninvasive types and forms that can enhance landscapes across many temperate zones, adding unique texture and year-round appeal as a vigorous evergreen. Let's look outside the box at the potential of these well-behaved bamboos into our landscapes, and consider Fargesia as a different kind of evergreen for hedges, screens or simply as an elegant specimen.
Susanne Lucas is a horticulturist at Pioneer Plants LLC., www.BambooSelect.us; firstname.lastname@example.org.