Bamboo is unlike any other plant on earth. Its unique appearance captures the imagination, while its prolific growth has made it a champion of sustainability. But if you’re new to the world of bamboo, you may be wondering: what does bamboo actually look like?
On the surface, bamboo plants can be mistaken for trees: the culms are straight, tall, and covered in slender green foliage. It’s only when you look closer that you can see that bamboo is not a tree at all. In fact, bamboo is part of the grass family, Poaceae, and shares many of the same characteristics as the grass you might have growing in your yard.
Knowing what bamboo generally looks like is helpful whether you’re a new bamboo gardener or trying to distinguish true bamboo from lookalike plants. We will break down bamboo’s appearance from the roots all the way to the top, so that you can observe bamboo with confidence!
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Are bamboo plants trees?
That said, many people affectionately refer to bamboo plants as trees since they can be very tree-like.
Bamboo is even harvested for its “wood” for building materials, as its stems are strong and durable. However, despite being wood-like, bamboo culms are not truly wooden.
With a few exceptions, such as Phyllostachys heteroclada f. solida, bamboo stems are hollow inside.
Bamboo plants vs. trees
Unlike trees, species within the grass family do not develop the vascular cambium or have lateral meristem cells that produce woody growth. This growth is also what causes tree trunks to thicken and expand outward as the tree ages, and is why we can count the rings in a tree stump to determine how old the tree is!
By contrast, a bamboo culm reaches full size within its first year. While it won’t get any thicker, a bamboo culm will continue to grow new branches and foliage each year until it eventually dies.
The biggest difference between a bamboo plant and a tree, however, is found beneath the soil. A tree has a large network of underground roots that support a single trunk with a canopy of branches and leaves.
Bamboo, on the other hand, produces multiple culms that develop from their rhizomes. Bamboo rhizomes are essentially stem-like growth beneath the soil, producing new buds that eventually become new shoots.
What does a bamboo plant look like?
Now that we have established that bamboo is fundamentally different from trees, it’s time to explore the characteristics that give bamboo its unique appearance.
Knowing what bamboo looks like will not only help you identify bamboo when you see it, but it will also help you differentiate between true bamboo and bamboo lookalikes. So let’s dive in!
The bamboo culms are likely the first part of the plant you will spot. Bamboo culms are typically tall, hollow stems with prominent swells that resemble knuckles or joints (these are called nodes). Bamboo culms can vary widely in both diameter and height, with some species growing as tall as 100 feet and others as short as just 1 foot.
In addition, bamboo culms can vary in their appearance. Many are dark green in color when young, and tend to get brown as they age. However, there are also bamboo species with yellow, red, and even black culms! Some species emerge purple, but then turn green as they mature.
While most culms are round and straight, some follow a zig-zag growth pattern (Phyllostachys aureosulcata f, spectabilis) and others bulge at the nodes (Buddha Belly Bamboo). One species, Chimonobambusa quadrangularis, has square-shaped culms!
Are you a botany fan? Or do you want to dive deeper into the anatomy of bamboo?
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Bamboo leaves and blade
If you look closely at a bamboo shoot, you will notice at its tip a leaf-like structure called the blade. You may be familiar with that term if you grow grass on your lawn! Bamboo, like many in the grass family, has a blade at the apex of the plant.
Looking at grass, you might think that it doesn’t look anything like bamboo, and you’re right. In lawn grasses, the blade is longer than the stem. A big reason for this is that the grass growing on your lawn is lower to the ground and has to compete with taller plants for sunlight.
Therefore, they need the extra help of a longer, more prominent blade for photosynthesis. On the other hand, bamboo plants can grow to tremendous heights and therefore need longer, sturdier culms to transport nutrients to the top of the plant!
Bamboo leaves, on the other hand, are slender and beautiful, and are responsible for most of bamboo’s photosynthesis. The typically pointed, lance-like leaves of bamboo usually come in various shades of green, although they can also be distinctly variegated, such as Sasa veitchii.
Bamboo canopies, composed of leaves and branches, can be thick or sometimes sparse. Some, like Umbrella Bamboo, are defined by their “weeping” appearance, caused by culms bending when top-heavy.
Bamboo leaves are a great way to distinguish between true bamboo and plants that look like bamboo. Have a look at the image below where we put them side-by-side.
Bamboo roots and rhizomes
A defining characteristic of bamboo plants is that they have strong underground rhizome systems but you won’t be able to easily see or analyze them. There are generally two types of bamboo rhizomes: running and clumping.
- Clumping bamboo has rhizomes capable of producing multiple offshoots from a single node. The resulting growth above the soil appears in a cluster pattern.
- Running bamboo has rhizomes that can travel far from the mother plant. Each node will produce one shoot or new rhizome. As a result, running bamboo can become quite invasive if not contained properly.
In addition to the rhizome system responsible for its spread, bamboo also has roots that carry water and nutrients up the culms. Bamboo plants are so strong that you might think that they have a deep root system, but they are actually pretty shallow, growing no more than 2-3 feet below the surface.
The rhizome system is even more shallow, sitting in just the top 12 inches of soil. Despite this, bamboo root systems are so densely packed that they are able to support culms as tall as 100 feet!
How can I tell if a plant is bamboo?
While different bamboo species can vary in color, size, and shape, they all share the same basic characteristics. That said, there are a handful of plants that are similar to bamboo in appearance.
Some of these plants even have nicknames with the word “bamboo,” such as lucky bamboo and bamboo palm. Neither of these is a true bamboo.
Plant nicknames can make it more difficult to identify plants properly, especially because most people aren’t familiar with plants’ latin names. The easiest way to tell which plants are bamboo, and which ones aren’t, is by taking a look at their basic anatomy. Let’s use lucky bamboo and bamboo palm as examples:
Lucky bamboo is quite beautiful and makes a wonderful houseplant, but it isn’t actually a true bamboo. Its botanical name is Dracaena sanderiana, and it belongs to the Asparagaceae family. It is commonly called lucky bamboo because it bears a similar appearance to true bamboo. It, too, has stems with prominent nodes.
Apart from having different taxonomy, the biggest physical difference between lucky bamboo and true bamboo is that its stems are not hollow. Plus the leaves have a different wider shape and grow directly on the stem (not on branches).
In addition, lucky bamboo grows roots directly from the nodes, not underground rhizome systems. This is especially apparent with lucky bamboo grown in water. So while lucky bamboo may look like true bamboo at first, you can easily tell them apart if you know what you are looking for.
Bamboo palm, Chamaedorea seifrizii, has also earned its nickname due to its likeness to true bamboo. Bamboo palms belong to the Arecaceae family. Their bumpy stems and delicate, wispy foliage resemble real bamboo quite closely. It even grows in a similar cluster-like formation that you may see in clumping bamboo. Like lucky bamboo, bamboo palms don’t have hollow stems.
When you look closely at the leaves, you’ll be able to tell the both apart. True bamboo plants have smaller groups of leaves on each branch, while the leaves of the bamboo palm look closer to a, well, palm tree. Hence, the combination in its name.
FAQ about bamboo plants
How do I know which type of bamboo I have?
If you know that you have a true bamboo, but you don’t know what species, you’ll need to look closely at the plant for various clues. Different species have unique characteristics that can be found in the culm, leaves, rhizomes, and even shoots. You can check out our complete guide on identifying bamboo species here!
How many different species of bamboo are there?
Most researchers agree that there are between 1400-1700 species of bamboo around the world. The most agreed-upon number seems to currently be 1662 unique species. China is home to a large proportion of these species, but it’s worth noting that bamboo grows naturally in 5 of 7 continents worldwide.