Part of bamboo’s popularity is its hardiness and multiple uses. It’s fast-growing and thrives in many locales. In general, bamboos are less susceptible to disease than many other tropical plants. But they are not immune.
Bamboo pests you want to watch out for include insects and herbivorous animals. Certain molds, fungus, and rot can also affect your plant.
Fortunately, most of these threats aren’t fatal and usually don’t greatly affect the growth of the bamboo, especially if caught early. Monitor your plant regularly to note any changes that might mean trouble. Let’s look at the enemies in the garden and ways to keep your bamboo healthy.
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What bamboo pests & diseases you have to watch out for
Some insects such as scales, mealybugs, and mites target bamboo exclusively. Others, such as aphids do not discriminate. They attack just about every plant they see. These insects feed on the plant and weaken it, making it susceptible to other issues like mold and rot.
In addition, perfectly healthy plants may fall prey to herbivorous animals who like the taste of bamboo. Each offender leaves its mark and does its damage. Knowing what you’re up against is the first step in protecting your bamboo.
1. Bamboo Mites
Bamboo mites should be your biggest concern. Not only are they difficult to see with your bare eyes, they are also hard to eliminate.
They live in colonies on the underside of leaves, sucking fluids like chlorophyll from the plant. As the mites pierce the underside of the leaves and drain the bamboo of its liquids, the leaves’ photosynthesis is affected, causing the leaves to discolor. Look for yellowish-pale coloration on your bamboo’s leaves.
If you don’t act quickly, bamboo mites will spread to surrounding bamboo plants. The increase of bamboo mite infestation is very alarming and has become a big problem, especially in hot and dry areas of North America.
Appearance of pest: Usually too small to be seen with the naked eye. They may be noticed as tiny specs, within fine webbing on the underside of leaves.
Several species of aphids feed on bamboo, sucking the very life liquid from the plant. Not only will they damage your plant they can also spread disease. Aphids reproduce quickly and, left unchecked, they can cause tremendous damage.
Aphids are tiny, soft-bodied insects. These winged pests pierce the bamboo with their slender mouthparts and suck out the fluid the plant lives on. Over time, the bamboo leaves wilt and the bamboo growth becomes stunted. As they feed on the bamboo, aphids secrete sticky honeydew. This secretion presents the opportunity for a secondary issue for your plant: sooty mold, which begins to grow in the sweet, sticky substance.
Appearance of pest: Tiny, winged, soft-bodied. Their color is most often green, but they can also be tan, brown, red, yellow, grey, or even black, depending on location and time of year. They are tiny but can usually be seen with the naked eye.
3. Bamboo Mealybug – Palmicultor lumpurensis
These mealybugs are sapsuckers. Like aphids and mites, they damage the plants by feeding on the fluids the bamboo needs to live. Like aphids, mealybugs leave behind a honeydew secretion, which leaves the plant primed for rot. Leaves and stems of the bamboo become unhealthy, distorted and discolored.
Appearance of pest: You might find this insect surrounded by sticky white webbing, resembling a cotton fluff. If you peel back the white substance, the mealybugs themselves are tiny and pink.
4. Termites: Subterranean and Drywood
As their name implies, subterranean termites attack bamboo on the ground, by emerging from the soil in tube-like channels. Once they get into the plant flesh, they’ll gnaw on the inside of the bamboo stem, or culm. Some colonies have more than one egg-laying female, so subterranean termite nests can grow quickly into the thousands.
The nests can often exist and infest undetected. Looking for early warning signs is key to preventing the most serious damage. Watch for the presence of winged swarmers, mud tubes and evidence of damaged bamboo.
Drywood termites don’t need mud tubes. They build their nests right inside the bamboo culm parts that they are chewing on. By the time the attack is noticeable on the exterior of the plant, the bamboo often is already in late-stage deterioration.
Appearance of pest: Swarmer termites resemble flying ants but are smaller and have straight antennae. They have four wings, all the same size. Worker termites have no wings, are less than ¼ inch (6 mm) long and are creamy-white in color.
Scale are tiny insects with a waxy, shell-like covering on their backs. They too, suck on the bamboo, deprive it of nutrition, and cause the plant tissue to deteriorate. Scale clump together and can be difficult to notice until their pile is so dense that it covers the culm, making the surface appear brownish-gray.
Scale also secrete honeydew, attracting insects and ants and setting the scene for the growth of sooty mold on bamboo.
Appearance of pest: Scale looks like little, flat cones on branches and leaves. They are light-colored when young, growing darker and more visible with age.
Tasty bamboo is not only for insects. Plenty of animals find the tender new bamboo shoots or the rhizomes underground a delicious treat. Watch out for:
- Tropical animals love bamboo: gorillas, elephants, giant pandas, and chimpanzees are a few.
7. Fungal Spots
As bamboo ages, especially in humid environments, fungal spots can appear on the shoots. Indoor bamboo plants tend to be particularly susceptible, as the fungal spots are often related to poorly drained soil, as well.
Fungus usually appears in a circular pattern. Oftentimes, it can be a consequence of age and not particularly harmful to the bamboo.
However, some fungus can cause root rot or be a symptom of other issues. And some dangerous molds or pest leave a residue that has a fungus-like appearance, so it is important to identify what is happening in order to know how to handle it.
Appearance of issue: a circular pattern of brownish spots on the culm.
8. Decay Rot
Some fungal diseases affecting plants in soil that is overly moist or poorly drained. The Armillaria fungus, also known as oak root fungus, is one such disease. It causes leaves to discolor and drop – and oftentimes, die. The plant will eventually decay if left untreated.
Appearance of issue: A root fungus is evidenced by mushrooms around the base of the plant. You may also notice that your bamboo is crumbly or spongy.
9. Bamboo Mosaic Potex Virus – BaMV
In some instances, humans can unknowingly transmit diseases to plants via improperly cleaned cutting and pruning tools. The virus known as BaMV is transmitted when a tool that trimmed an infected plant is used to trim a healthy plant. While rare, BaMV is untreatable, so it’s best to keep tools clean as a precaution.
The first symptom of the incurable virus is a mosaic pattern of discoloration on the leaves. Next will be a progressive death of twigs, branches, shoots, or roots, starting at the tips.
Appearance of issue: Mosaic pattern of discoloration on leaves.
10. Black Sooty Mold
Thanks to many insect pests, such as aphids and scale insects, black sooty mold is likely the most common blight of bamboo plants. Insects generously create the perfect conditions for mold to grow when they feed on the bamboo plant and leave behind a sticky honeydew substance. This secretion accumulates on the branches and a sooty mold begins to grow within it.
With time, the mold becomes an infestation of unsightly black spots. And because the plant also has an insect infestation at the same time, the bamboo will continue to deteriorate unless both issues are resolved. While the mold may not kill the plant on its own, the insects eventually will.
Appearance of issue: Black sooty spots with an ashy appearance.
Signs your bamboo has pests
It may seem to you like your bamboo is doomed. But that’s not always the case! Bamboo is very hardy. And most of these issues are very treatable – if you catch signs early. The sooner you notice something is wrong, the sooner treatment begins, and your bamboo is on its way back to pest-free health.
Get to know your bamboo and you’ll know when something’s getting at it.
Here are common indicators of bamboo troubles:
- Signs of bites, gnawing, and chewing
- Black sooty film, almost like ash
- Sticky substance on branches
- Brown leaves
- White substance on root tips
- Silky webbing on the underside of leaves
- Wilted leaves
- Stunted growth
- Brownish-gray clumps
- Circular rings or pattern on leaves
- Mosaic-patterned discoloration on leaves
- Unusual presence of ants on/near your bamboo
Note: Mildly yellowing or browning leaves, without any indication of insects or fungus, usually just indicate your plant needs attention: better soil, more nutrients or proper watering. Yellow leaves can also just be part of the normal life cycle of a bamboo plant (“fall” foliage that mostly happens in spring).
Any of these more serious symptoms indicate a pest or disease is affecting your bamboo. And, how well the damage can be remedied depends on the cause of the symptoms and how far along the harm is.
Identification of pests and diseases
Before you can treat bamboo issues, you must identify the cause. Fortunately, most of the pests and diseases that affect bamboo are easy to distinguish. While we’ve covered the 10 most common issues above, there are many resources available to help you get all the details.
- National Pesticide Investigation Center
- University extension centers, such as this one
- The American Bamboo Society
- Experts at your local garden center
- Books and online resources
How to get rid of bamboo pests
While you want to work your way to a healthy plant, you should also keep the interest of the environment – and your neighbors in mind. It’s not a good idea to throw strong chemicals around in the garden. And, oftentimes, that’s unnecessary.
Avoid using insecticide sprays, as they target beneficial insects at the same time. Approaches to insect problems can be environmentally friendly.
Natural approaches to control bamboo pests & diseases
- Pressure wash with water: Blast the entire bamboo plant, paying special attention to areas of dense foliage and the underside of leaves. This can be very effective against mites and other insects and will not harm the leaves. You can do this several times a week.
- Pressure wash with insecticidal soap: Use 1 tablespoon of laundry detergent powder per 1 gal (3.78L) of water in a pressure washer or hand sprayer. The treatment will turn leaves a bit yellow, but it is highly effective and has very low toxicity. Apply no more than once every two weeks
- Horticultural oils: Mix 2 to 5 tablespoons of water per gallon (3.78L) of water. Use enough spray solution to completely penetrate the leaf canopy and cover both top and bottom of all the leaves until wet.
- Mowing: If you have an incontrollable mite infestation, it is sometimes necessary to mow down the entire area and dispose of the foliage and canes. Because bamboo grows quickly, you can replant and expect growth of 3 to 5 feet per year, depending on the variety.
- Natural predators: Ladybugs, lacewings, predatory mites (like Neoseiulus fallacis), and parasitic wasps help prevent problematic infestations of bamboo insects and mites.
- Crypts, the mealybug destroyer: This is a bug that loves mealybugs and will devastate active colonies. These warriors, which look a lot like ladybugs with a black back, can be ordered online or purchased through catalogs. The crypts will only live if there is live food to eat. So, you may have to repeat this battle several times.
- Physical barriers: For wildlife, the only way to protect your bamboo is to keep the animals away. Wire enclosures around young shoots will help the plants become more established before animals can cause too much damage. By the time the shoots are toughened up, you can remove the barrier and enjoy the natural beauty of your bamboo.
These methods of pest elimination are notably more drastic and potentially toxic. They should only be considered an option if you have exhausted the natural methods above.
Before you make the decision to use any pesticide, check the most recent health and safety information before using. Should you choose to use an insecticide, wear protective gear and follow directions on the bottle, including all safety precautions.
- Neem Oil: Organic insecticide which kills mites, aphids, mealybugs, whiteflies, and other insects.
- Imidacloprid Granules: A systemic, soil-based insecticide granule that will need to be reapplied annually. It is best used where spraying is not feasible.
- Abamectin: Kills only mites and leaf miners, no other insects or birds. Its systemic action makes it more effective with mites.
WARNING –Not recommended
Malathion: This insecticide kills bees and many other beneficial insects, birds and fish, other aquatic life. It is not worth the risk to the environment. So, keep your hands off of this insecticide!
It is much easier to keep mites and other pests out of your bamboo in the first place. It is much more difficult to get rid of them once they have made themselves at home.
Three important steps:
- Inspect any new bamboo you import into your garden.
- Immediately separate any plants with a suspected infestation.
- Thoroughly clean suspect plants with a high-powered hose.
Inspecting your plants before purchase or planting
Bamboo plants may be infested at the nursery or plant shop. Protect yourself – and your other plants – by doing a thorough inspection before you buy or plant.
- Take your plant to a bright part of the garden shop or your property
- Look it over with a magnifying glass (Yes, really!)
- Ask what the procedure is for checking plants and treating for pests
- Find out if there is a policy for replacement in the case of infested plants
- Check for poorly drained soil and other symptoms of poor care
- Look at the overall health of the garden center’s plants
- Read reviews and FAQs if you choose to buy online
Damage control and avoiding diseases
If you determine your bamboo is starting with disease, you can try to reduce the severity of the damage before the disease becomes further established. You can cut away dead or injured stalks – and dispose of them to prevent further spread. Dig up dead or infected roots and let the soil dry out around them.
Keep your bamboo thinned out, so there is air movement between the stalks. This helps to avoid the crowded, moist environment that mites and aphids like. Cultural or environmental conditions can also lead to browning on bamboo plants.
Watch out for these common conditions that can damage an otherwise healthy plant and make it more susceptible to disease or pests.
- Heat: Too much heat or direct sunlight can stress or damage plants. Most bamboo varieties prefer shade or partial sunlight.
- Water: Under-watering can cause the bamboo to get brown tips. A new bamboo plant benefits from watering more frequently until the plant reaches the 3- to 6-month mark. After that time in-ground plants usually require not much supplemental irrigation, unless it’s very dry.
- Watering potted bamboo: Slightly on the dry side is always preferable to wet, soggy soil. A mature bamboo plant will let you know when it’s thirsty. Don’t water the plant until the leaves begin to curl.
- Soil: Having well-draining, aerated soil will prevent root rot and other diseases. So, make sure you pay a lot of intention to the soil quality.
- Fertilizer: Be careful not to use too much. It may be responsible if bamboo plant tips are brown. Even natural fertilizer can contain salts that burn bamboo leaves. Get more info on bamboo fertilizers here!
- Winter damage: Chilly weather can burn the leaves of many types of bamboo. Some of the leaves may even drop from the plant, but those leaves should grow back in spring. Many bamboo species are cold-hardy and can withstand colder periods.