Bamboo Bonsai [Care Guide and Techniques] Updated 2022

Bamboo is found in both tropical and temperate zones all over the world, and there are over 10,000 species. Each bamboo is a member of the grass family and is well-suited for particular bonsai stylings.

There are records of bamboo being used for bonsai for hundreds of years. And while some do not believe it is “real” bonsai, a clump of bamboo can create a beautiful forest bonsai aesthetic.

Bamboo Bonsai on Display in a Forest Style
Bamboo Bonsai on Display in a Forest Style

This article will go into early accounts of bamboo as bonsai, care guidelines for bamboo, and other species thought to be bamboo but aren’t!

Bamboo Bonsai Care Guide

Placement 

Best outdoors, but will grow indoors with enough light. (Know whether you have a tropical or temperate variety.)

Water

Keep moist. Dries out quickly. Check often.

Trimming 

Trim dead leaves often and trim roots – most likely once a year. Could be more often in the tropics.

Pests 

Bamboo is prone to red spider mites, especially indoors. Scale is also fond of this plant.

Propagation

Luckily, propagating bamboo is relatively easy. The following two methods are the best ways to separate your mother colony and create new bamboo. There are other ways to propagate, such as seed, but they have less success.

Cloning

Cloning a bamboo is easy. You must choose one that can produce a plantlet from either the rhizome or the culm. This will happen naturally when you plant a small plant with buds in the soil.

Rhizome

Find an offset by looking for a single culm with about five nodes. You will find the lower half of the rhizome, which is attached to the roots. This is the easiest method of propagation. 

They are best collected between February and April as they have the greatest food and nutrition reserves, making them more healthy. Because they can create new roots and provide water for the new shoots during the rainy season, they will likely survive transplantation. 

Bamboo Flowers

How often can your bamboo flower? The answer: it is very rare for bamboo to flower.

While some species bloom every year, most others only flower for a few years. This can produce thousands of seeds, but they are only good for a short time.

Bamboo kept as bonsai is very unlikely ever to flower.

Early Accounts of Bamboo as Bonsai

The art of bonsai came to the United States during the early 1900s. There are accounts of different bamboo bonsai stylings from early exhibitions during this era.

In 1876, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition took place to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the United States. During this event, the Japanese Meiji government honored the country by importing their art, including bonsai. According to J.S. Ingram, an event attendee, there were miniature bamboo plants in pots.

In one corner of the back yard adjoining the bazaar was the Japanese horticultural display. Young bamboo, flowers and stunted trees and shrubbery were exhibited.

The Centennial Exposition by J.S. Ingram Page 483
Bamboo Forest Bonsai from 1952 – Image Credit University of Utah

Why don’t you see many bamboo bonsai at exhibits?

The way bamboo grows makes it difficult to create bonsai. They are the fastest growing plant in the world, making all types hard to control in a container.

Another problem for bonsai is, that these plants don’t have real branches, and the roots are unique because they grow off of rhizomes.

Bamboo graphic by Eduardo Varona

“A rhizome is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes.”

Wikipedia

Clumping vs. Running Bamboo

Despite the number of species, there are two types of bamboo, one grows in “clumps,” and the other is a “runner.”

When buying these plants, especially when planting them in the ground, always ask which type it is. “Running” bamboo is invasive!

Another potential problem is, that individual stalks only live for a limited number of years, depending on the species. In nature, these dead stalks are just cut down, and they are soon replaced by new ones.

For this reason, bamboo is most often used in groupings or forests.

This way, a stalk can often be removed without destroying the composition. Because of how the rhizomes grow, this plant is sometimes perfect for shallow containers.

This grouping is in a shallow pot known as a suiban … it has no holes in it. (This type of container is often used in Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging.)

Miniature bamboos well suited to container growing are the Sasa species and Shibatea kumasaca. These and other running bamboos, like black bamboo, can be kept small when contained and are used in bonsai arrangements.

University of Hawaii at Manoa – CTAHR

The substantial root system of bamboo is fine with this ability to hold a small amount of water. It will help keep it moist in a small amount of soil. Look closely, and you will see the beautiful carved “feet” raising the pot off the ground.

Lucky Bamboo

Dracaena sanderiana

“Lucky Bamboo” is Dracaena sanderiana. It is not in the Bambusa family. It is not bamboo and cannot be bonsai.

It is a plant that grows easily indoors and has become very popular. Sometimes they are sold growing in water. They will live for a limited amount of time this way. However, you will have better success when planted in soil. It can be attractive, and sometimes even fun, but “Lucky Bamboo” is not bonsai, nor bamboo.

Nandina as Bamboo Bonsai

Some consider the segmented stems of older Nandina plants to resemble bamboo, it is not. It is occasionally used as an accent or companion plant when displayed in bonsai exhibits.

Nandina Bamboo Bonsai in Baihuatan Park, Chengdu, China

Cultivated for centuries in native lands of China, Japan and India, it was introduced to the western world around 1800 and has earned horticultural awards for over a century.

Colleen Forster of Fraser South Chapter – Virginia Tech
“Heavenly bamboo” is Nandina domestica

I found that the dwarf variety also makes a good bonsai. I had never thought of Nandina as a bonsai, but I can see how it- would work. It has a small leaf structure and thin branches which -gives the plant a good structure for a bonsai.

Author: Peter Whitman (University of Arizona)

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