The Red-Leaved Bamboo
February at its finest.
Winter has its charm, particularly if you do not drive in it, as I don't now. I have a large stand of yellow-groove bamboo, Phyllostachys Aureosulcata. In just right type of snowfall, medium flakes, not too wet or too dry, and with temperatures 2-4 degrees below freezing, the snow on the leaves is utterly magnificent.
Yellow-groove is an extremely hardy species, excellent for midwestern gardens like mine where real, below zero, temperature extremes are possible, though they seldom last longer than the better part of a week. Yellow-groove has been stated, by some authorities, to be hardy down to -20F of real temperature, not just wind chill, temperature which will kill many other species of bamboo rhizomes. The shoots are also edible, if you like to cook and eat such things.
Bamboo is a weird plant about which we really know less than we should, given the progress of science. For example, species like yellow-groove normally propagate through spreading rhizomes, but, at extremely and long and indefinite intervals, they will flower, go to seed, and completely die, culm, root, and rhizome (culm, by the way is the botanical name of the stalk above ground with the leaves on it). No one can stop this process. That may not seem that odd, but every member of any given species of bamboo goes to seed and dies at the same time all around the world! Nobody knows why or how they do this.
Yellow groove spreads aggressively, so if you plant it, do what I have done, and plant it in the middle of your property, where you can lawn-mow the new shoots that come up in your grass outside the confines of your bamboo grove. Nothing makes a neighbor more shirty than an overwhelming jungle from next door taking over his property! It also makes a very dense screen if left to grow naturally, a living privacy fence which, when mature, can grow as high as 25 feet.
But this dense screen is not the aesthetically pleasing bamboo groves which the Chinese and the Japanese have painted for centuries. These are manufactured with deliberate cultivation and care. I stumbled on the secret of doing this with yellow-groove last year. Two years ago, the grove did not grow upright and tall, but, rather, low and spreading, due to some freak in the weather conditions. It looked totally ugly, so I decided to completely prune back all the culms to the ground.
Having done so, the new bamboo shoots grew fast and tall, at exactly the density that you see in well-cultivated Asian groves, with about a foot, more or less, between each culm, letting them display their leaves magnificently, and letting them bend gracefully to every wind. I have cut out a space in the center of my grove, and a path through to it, paved with flagstones, and containing a wrought iron chair, for someone to sit in privacy, and contemplate the beauty of the sound of the wind rushing through the leaves.
I sometimes wonder if our great land is not like my bamboo grove: dense, thick, healthy, and hardy; spreading aggressively; and at its best with tender care and cutting back. If so, I hope it doesn't suddenly go to seed, though I fear it may be doing so even as we speak, since the flowers of our profligacy and our indifference to the views of the rest of the world have been exceptionally large over the past few years.
In any event, bamboo is the plant of beauty and mystery, stimulating some of the greatest art of Asia, the art of brush and black ink on paper. My favorite story is of a patron who commissioned a painting from one of the most famous artists of his day, who was a renowned painter of bamboo. When the painting was finished, you could almost feel the wind swaying the culms in the grove. But it was done entirely in red ink, which is normally reserved for personal seals. The patron was overwhelmed by the beauty, but dumbfounded by the color. He said, "But bamboo isn't red!"
The great and famous artist replied, "Have you ever heard of a black-leaved bamboo?"