One of the most common questions we get asked is “Can you help me identify this bamboo?” and we don’t blame you! There are nearly 1700 known species of bamboo across the globe. With so many distinct species, you may not even know where to start.
But while different bamboos can look similar to one another, it’s possible to differentiate between species if you know where to look. You can tell many bamboos apart by their unique characteristics such as size, color, variegation, number of branches, and growing location. You can even identify your bamboo based on the shoot’s culm leaf, which makes springtime an especially good time of year to identify bamboo.
Whether you are looking at a pot of bamboo without a label, just moved into a new property with mystery bamboo on it, or want to know what variety your neighbors are growing, learning about bamboo identification is very useful. Especially when it comes to controlling the growth of different species. Keep reading to learn how to identify your bamboo in a detailed step-by-step process!
Why it’s important to identify your bamboo
There are several reasons why you may need to identify bamboo. The first reason is that depending on the location, some varieties of bamboo are invasive plants.
Suppose you recently purchased a new property with bamboo on it. In that case, you’ll want to find out what type of bamboo it is in order to determine whether to get rid of it, contain it properly using a root barrier, or simply allow it to keep growing.
Even if it isn’t an invasive species, you want to identify the bamboo you’re dealing with in order to understand how to care for it properly. While most bamboo species are very hardy, if you want to keep your bamboo thriving and looking its best, pinpointing the specific bamboo species you are growing will help you navigate the nuances of its care.
Lastly, many types of bamboo can be harvested for their poles or shoots, which can be used for building materials, crafts, and even culinary applications.
Identifying bamboo: a step-by-step guide
Anyone can learn how to identify bamboo, but in order to do so it requires a basic understanding of bamboo anatomy. We will be discussing various plant parts including the roots, culm, shoot, leaves, and more, so being able to point these plant parts out is key.
Step 1: Start with the rhizomes
When it comes to identifying bamboo, examining the rhizomes should be your first course of action. There are two distinct types of bamboo: running bamboo and clumping bamboo.
Knowing which one you are dealing with will make identification that much easier.
Identifying running bamboo
Running bamboo, also known as Monopodial bamboo, has a far-reaching rhizome system that grows underground. These rhizomes are very thick and resemble horizontal underground stems. On each node of the rhizome, there will be a bud. Some of these buds will eventually grow into shoots that will become new bamboo stems, but others will become new rhizomes and will extend growth further.
This far-reaching root system is what can make running bamboo invasive. For example, bamboos within the Phyllostachys genus create strong networks of underground rhizomes, making them incredibly prolific growers that can travel quite far from the mother plant.
If your bamboo grove is spread out over a large area with some space between each culm, you’re likely dealing with a running variety.
Identifying clumping bamboo
Clumping (or sympodial) bamboo is the other type of bamboo that you can identify by looking at the rhizome system. There are actually two different subtypes of clumping bamboo: sympodial-tufted bamboo and sympodial-scattered bamboo.
Sympodial-tufted bamboo has what is known as axillary buds that form on the stem base. These buds turn into new shoots and eventually become culms. This large root ball tends to be compact and won’t extend far from the parent plant. This means if your bamboo stays in dense clumps, you’re dealing with a clumping variety.
As the name suggests, sympodial-scattered bamboo grows in a more scattered pattern. Sometimes referred to as “open clumpers,” these bamboo species send out false rhizomes up to 3 feet away from the mother plant. While you might mistake these types of bamboo for running bamboo at first, note that the growth remains centered around the mother plant.
For mixpodial or amphipodial bamboo, the running rhizomes produce clump-like buds from the node. This differs from your typical running bamboo, which will only develop one bud from a single node.
Although this type is rare and may be confusing, it may help you identify a particular species of bamboo. So we didn’t want to leave it out.
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Step 2: Determine the approximate height
Next, you will want to figure out how tall the culms of the bamboo are. A rough estimate works, or you can use a tape measure if the culms are shorter. If you want to accurately measure a taller bamboo culm, you can do so by using a clinometer or ruler, methods that you can learn more about here.
Knowing the height of your bamboo (even if approximate) can help you further narrow down your search.
Note, however, that there are multiple factors such as growing conditions that can impact the height of a bamboo plant, so you won’t be able to identify a bamboo based on height alone.
Bamboo > 20 feet tall
Tall culms with scattered branches and green foliage: this is typically what we envision when we think of bamboo plants. Many tall bamboo plants can easily grow up to 50 feet tall, like Phyllostachys Edulis “Moso Bamboo,” with some species even reaching 100 feet or more!
For example, species from the Dendrocalamus genus are amongst the world’s tallest bamboo, with Dendrocalamus giganteus growing more than 100 feet tall in its native tropical climate. In colder climates, however, you’re more likely to encounter bamboo that is no more than 20-40 feet tall.
Bamboo < 20 feet tall
Bamboos that are less than 20 feet tall are often referred to as dwarf bamboo varieties, and are sometimes used as groundcover. While some dwarf cultivars resemble typical bamboo and grow 10-20 feet tall, some groundcover bamboo species only grow a few feet high.
Not only are they shorter, but they tend to be much more bushy. This is because smaller species tend to be shaded and need more foliage growth for photosynthesis.
Step 3: Look at the culms
Now it’s time to look at the bamboo culms for characteristics that will help you identify your bamboo plant. The culm encompasses several important parts of the bamboo plant, so you should be able to identify your bamboo plant based on several parts of the culm.
Culm shape and size
Some culms are thinner and more delicate. Others are much thicker and more tree-like. Guadua angustifolia, for example, has 7 inches in culm diameter!
The overall shape of the culm can also help with bamboo identification. For example, the beautiful Chimonobambusa quadrangularis is known for having square-shaped culms, which are unique to this type of bamboo. There’s also the Bambusa ventricosa which has culms that bulge at the nodes, hence the nickname “Buddha Belly Bamboo.”
Most bamboos have straight culms but there are a few that are zig-zaggy like Phyllostachys Aureosulcata ‘Spectabilis.’
Nodes and internodal spacing
Looking at a bamboo culm, you’ll quickly notice segments of the culm joined by a swollen joint. These are nodes. Depending on the species, some nodes are barely visible, while others are very conspicuous.
The spacing between the nodes, the internodes, is another way to identify bamboo species. While some bamboo species have shorter or irregular internodes, others have internodes that are several feet long. For example, the Bambusa chungii can grow internodes up to 3-4 feet long.
Identifying bamboo through culm colors and markings
Some types of culms have very distinct markings or colors that you can examine to determine the identification of your bamboo plant. For example, Fargesia jiuzhaigou famously has bright red culms, while Phyllostachys vivax has a very prominent yellow stripe along the internodes. There’s also black bamboo and some culms change colors depending on their age. Young culms often start in light green and then turn into dark green or yellow. So it’s important to inspect new culms as well as mature culms.
There are two other parts to the culm that will help you identify your bamboo. The first is the sulcus groove. The sulcus groove is a noticeable channel that will run vertically on the internode. It’s very prominent in the Phyllostachys genus, especially on Yellow Groove Bamboo.
The supernodal ridge is another part of the bamboo culm that can play a key role in helping you identify your bamboo plant. This ridge is a pronounced ring-like bulge along the internode section. While this is a feature of most bamboo anatomy, the ridge can either be very prominent or barely visible, depending on the species. For example, Pseudosasa amabilis has a nearly undetectable supernodal ridge.
Look at the young shoots
If you can find new bamboo shoots, take a close look at them as well. Some bamboo species have a very distinct appearance. For example, P. nigra has crinkly leaf blades and prominent auricles and fimbriae which makes it very easy to distinguish.
Step 4: Identify bamboo with culm sheaths and sheath scars
Sheaths and sheath scarring are another way that you might identify your bamboo culms. As the culm grows, the protected sheath will eventually dry up and shed and may leave behind a scar. Phyllostachys nidularia, sometimes called Big Node or Smoothsheath Bamboo, has very prominent sheath scarring that makes the nodes bulge from the culm.
The culm sheaths themselves, if present on the bamboo you’re trying to identify, can also give you an idea of the bamboo variety. For example, Phyllostachys aurea or Golden bamboo has a yellow-green and even light reddish color with brown spots. It also has white hairs growing close to the base of the sheath.
Step 5: Identify bamboo with the branches and the leaves
Lastly, you can examine the branches and the leaves of your bamboo to identify the species. While branches and leaves are often the stars of the show for many trees and shrubs, it can be easy to overlook bamboo leaves.
Some species of bamboo can grow three (or more) branches from a single node, but the Phyllostachys bamboo genus only produces two branches from a single node, which are the same size.
Your bamboo leaves can help you to identify a particular species of bamboo. While leaf sizes can range from 0.5 inches to 0.75 inches wide, the Indocalamus tessellatus (also known as Giant Leaf bamboo) has leaves that are 5 inches wide and 26 inches long. The foliage can either present as an upright leaf or have a softer, weeping appearance like the whimsical Chusquea Culeou with dark, feathery foliage.
Not only can the shape and size of the leaf be a major indicator of the type of bamboo species, but the color can too! While there are endless shades of green, some bamboo species have variegation, and some will even change the color of their leaves depending on the season and temperature. Sasa veitchii, for example, develops a beautiful milky white variegation in the fall.
Step 6: Use your location and USDA zone
Lastly, you can use your location to help narrow down types of bamboo, whether it’s in the United States or around the world. Note that this will only help if the bamboo you are trying to identify grows in the ground, as conditions for container-grown bamboo are too variable.
While there are nearly 1700 different known species of bamboo, most genera and species thrive in particular climates. Some are frost tolerant and can tolerate colder, northern conditions, while others prefer more temperate weather.
If your bamboo is thriving in a particular region, that can help narrow down the search. Popular groundcover bamboo Sasa hayatae will happily tolerate temperatures as low as -10°F (-23°C). On the other hand, Bambusa chungii or Tropical Blue Bamboo prefers a warmer, tropical environment.
FAQs about bamboo identification
What can be mistaken for bamboo?
Several plants can be mistaken for bamboo. And with nicknames that often contain the word “bamboo,” things can get quite confusing. A great example of this is Dracaena sanderiana, or lucky bamboo. Its bamboo-like appearance and small size have made it a household staple.
There’s also bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii) which can be mistaken for bamboo due to its appearance and nickname. Both of these examples, however, are not true bamboo species.
Can I identify bamboo based on flowers?
There are times when you can identify bamboo species based on their flowers, but the rarity of seeing bamboo species in bloom makes this option out of reach for most cases. If you happen to witness a bamboo in bloom, you can narrow down the type of bamboo based on the timing as well as the appearance and color of the flower.
What does bamboo look like on the inside?
Most bamboo culms are hollow inside, with the more solid node segmenting the two hollow internodes. This is a prominent characteristic of the grass family, of which bamboo is a member. One unique cultivar of bamboo, Phyllostachys heteroclada ‘Solid Stem’ does not share this feature. Its culms are instead solid and resistant to splitting, making them useful in crafts and construction.