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Bamboos in an English Garden
For more years than I care to remember I’ve loved the ubiquitous bamboos. I think the love affair began in France where we frequently stayed with a friends’ Grandparents in the foothills of the Pyrenees on the River Garonne in the south west of that breathtaking country. They lived on a rambling old farm near Martres Tolosane and at the back of the large and ancient house was a wide and equally ancient patio where we enjoyed the most sumptuous of French meals with all the family. Over our heads hung the most beautifully perfumed wisteria, and to the side rustled a large and amazing thicket of bamboo. Just that gentle sound alone today is so evocative. The birds loved it and always seemed to be chirping away within its dense leaves; mostly unseen.
The bamboos are the real giants of the grass world. They’ve filled my gardens wherever I’ve lived with their graceful and delicate fronds. Most have been planted with delight and watched with awe in the following years; but some were planted with the most disastrous consequences!
My Bamboo Garden in England
My last garden in the England was large and my husband had built a large pond so that we could encourage all of the awe-inspiring wildlife to visit the garden. I had unfortunately suffered a back problem which had forced my early retirement, and in order to gain the maximum from my slow and often incapacitated state, the pond had been constructed on the slope below the conservatory so that I could watch it’s every mood as I endeavoured to recover. The pond had been filled with every conceivable pond plant, including the most colourful of water lilies with magnificent pads, strong enough for the birds to walk upon in their search for food. Fish were added, including Golden Orfs, Shubunkins, goldfish and Koi carp. They loved the expanse of water and the safe haven of the plants; consequently they began to breed quite rapidly. We enjoyed the frogs and toads that found it so attractive too. Their cheerful croaks and songs in mid February kept us wide awake but with a sense of pleasure at their mating and the coming fun of finding the frogspawn with the grand-children. From the very beginning it was a delight and cheered my waking days.
The surrounding areas had been divided into a bog garden, a waterfall, a dry shingle garden, a rock garden and an area for the bamboos. The whole was shaded by various trees, the pride being an old cherry tree which in spring turned the area pink with its blossoms, and as they fell, the water became pink in its turn. The tree hummed with the activities of the bees and later, as the cherries ripened it became the larder of all the local birds. We had to be very skilful to gain any advantage in the collection and I think its safe to say, we didn’t win!
The bamboo garden thrived, increasing it’s clumps gradually over the ensuing years, but in it’s second year we had a visit from an old friend from the West Country who’s garden was famous for its wonderful collections of various plants, including rhododendrons and bamboos. He was delighted with our large garden and commented on the various plants and some of the rarer trees. But his face changed colour as he was confronted with the bamboos or one in particular. We had planted the very worst ‘thug’ of the bamboo world in our garden and much too close to the pond he informed me. He then related the ‘tragedy’ of his own garden. Having planted the same ‘beautiful’ plant some twenty odd years previously, he had spent the last ten years trying to eradicate it with little success. “Remove it immediately if you love your pond”, he advised in all seriousness. The vandal would within a couple more years take over the pond and the garden.
Sadly, I didn’t take his advice too seriously as I was so enamoured of the delicate fronds and couldn’t envisage this much vilified beauty breaching the thick brick and concrete walls of that sturdy pond. But within that two year period, sure enough, the wretched plant had broken through the pond wall and into the pond! I was horrified, but fortunately the pond didn’t develop any leaks so we left it. Within a year we’d left the problem with a new owner as we moved from the house to our present home in Thailand. The very home of the bamboo! What delights awaited me here I wondered. I would at least be watching out for ‘hoodlum’ bamboos with bad intentions and steer well clear of them.
Or would I? According to the famous research botanist Edward F. Anderson, author of the most excellent book Plants and People of the Golden Triangle , which included a lengthy chapter on bamboos, there are about 50 genera and at least 1000 species of bamboo across the world……………..
................and more uses for Bamboo.
Bamboos in My Thai Garden
When one thinks of ‘bamboo’, the immediate thought is ‘Giant Pandas’. And of course, these delightful creatures depend solely on bamboo for their daily sustenance. But their natural habitat is much further north in China, so in the absence of pandas in this quiet corner of the world I will attempt to tell you a little of my experiences with the few giant grasses that we’ve acquired for our small garden and of their economical value and uses to the people of Thailand; in particular, those of the north west where we visit as often as possible.
When we bought our house some three years ago, the garden was sparsely planted and certainly did not include any bamboos. Over the past few years I’ve managed to persuade my long suffering husband to plant 14 bamboo plants. All purchased from the local nurseries around Sattahip, and all of the same species apart from the three Buddha’s belly bamboos, Bambusa ventricosa. What started off as very small and delicately fronded plants are now reaching roof level of our two storey house. Thankfully, the bamboos sold here seem to be the clump forming species and not the ‘runners’. They would appear not to terrorize the garden as much as the ones sold in the UK and I think nurseries there would do well to consider the consequences of selling the ‘loutish’ variety in future considering most people are unaware of the consequences of planting it.
Our garden is less than a quarter of an acre, with the house set in the middle and a swimming pool, pump house and workshop occupying quite a large proportion of it. So, you ask, where are these bamboos situated? The answer is all around the periphery and fast overhanging the surrounding two neighbours’ gardens and the land to the side and the rear. I’m now wondering just how tall they will grow and if they’re going to be as difficult to remove as the ones in our English garden. Clump forming or not, they’re still invasive and need constant pruning.
Maybe we’ll have to move again............!!!!!
The many uses of Bamboo
The Bamboo Economy of North West Thailand
In the north west of Thailand bamboo is an essential part of daily life for many of the Hill tribe peoples living in the mountainous regions around Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Sorn, Pai and Chiang Rai. Bamboos grow everywhere and are used in all areas of life from split bamboo fencing, flooring and walls, to furniture – tables, chairs, beds, and stools; to cooking utensils and eating implements – cups, spoons, knives, baskets, containers, pots, pot tripods, pestle and mortars, dishes and chopsticks. Bamboo makes excellent musical instruments, - pipes and stringed instruments. Rafts and bridges, animal traps and cages are all constructed from bamboos. Women weave on bamboo looms; old men smoke pipes made from bamboo; children swing on plaited bamboo ropes and fish with bamboo poles and baskets; new babies umbilical cords are severed with bamboo knives, and they are then placed in bamboo cradles. The rice stalks at harvest time are tied with bamboo strips; bamboo shoots are delicious cooked and the leaves are fed to the domestic animals.
The list is endless; it is true to say that without bamboo the villages could not exist; life would be impossible.
Bamboos used by the Hill tribes.
The variety of bamboos in northern Thailand is difficult to describe and classify for many different reasons, but the main one is that bamboos are poorly understood by botanists. It is not a popular group of plants for plant scientists to study because of the wide range of characteristics that the plants exhibit. Botanically, plant classification is based on the reproductive structures, flowers and fruits. With bamboos this is nearly impossibly, some plants do not flower for decades. Therefore to classify bamboos, the plant systematist must most often be satisfied with only the vegetative structures. But despite these problems the bamboos of northern Thailand can be fairly accurately identified.
Bamboos are characterized as having woody, long-lived, hollow stems (culms); complex branching systems; active rhizomes; and flower very infrequently. Some species such as Dendro-calamus strictus , flower between 20 and 44 years; D. giganteus flowers at 75 year intervals, and Bambusa vulgaris is believed to flower about once in 150 years! (Janzen, 1976).
The great majority of bamboos have hollow stems, only a few have solid culms – the genus Dinochloa for instance. The septum at each of the nodes however, is solid and this is what gives the grass its great strength.
There are about 20 native species of bamboo indigenous to northern Thailand (Edward F. Anderson ) and used by the hill tribes there. The height of these bamboos varies between 12 and 30 metres. They are as follows:
- Bambusa arundinacea
- Bambusa pallida
- Bambusa plymorpha
- Bambusa tulda
- Bambusa tuldoides
- Cephalostachyum pergracile
- Cephalostachyum virgatum
- Dendrocalamus brandisii
- Dendrocalamus giganteus
- Dendrocalamus hamiltonii
- Dendrocalamus latiflorus
- Dendrocalamus membranaceus
- Dendrocalamus strictus
- Gigantochloa latifolia
- Gigantochloa wrayi
- Melocalamus campactiflorus
- Oxytenanthera albo-ciliata
- Phyllostachys sp.
- Thyrsostachys oliverii
- Thyrsostachys siamensis
From my travels in the north west of Thailand and my observations of the hill tribes, the uses for bamboo continues the same today as they have done for years and centuries past. The plant has the most important economical value for these people and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
For me, living in Thailand has only served to enhance my great respect for this delightful plant. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing to look at and listen to; but my research has shown how valuable it continues to be to the many people living in the more remote parts of Thailand.
Long may it thrive!!