When you think of bamboo, your mind might conjure up a tropical rainforest lined with magnificent and tall bamboo culms. While this scene may be one particular environment where bamboo grows natively, this versatile member of the grass family (Poaceae) can grow in a wide range of climates and conditions, some of which may surprise you!
Bamboo grows natively in five of the seven continents and is cultivated nearly all over the globe. Being the fastest growing plant, it grows naturally in tropical and subtropical areas in Asia, Africa, South America, and even Northern Australia, but it can also grow in more temperate regions such as the United States! In all, there are nearly 1700 known species of bamboo spread throughout the world.
Today we will look at all the places where bamboo grows naturally, where it is cultivated and imported, and the types of species that thrive in each area. If you are thinking about growing bamboo in your own backyard, understanding where bamboo grows natively will give you a better sense of the types of bamboo that will grow best in your climate.
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The best climates for growing bamboo
Before we get into where the 1700 species of bamboo grow natively, we will explore the different climates where bamboo can grow, which range from temperate to tropical! Understanding these natural climates is not only helpful for choosing the right bamboo for your home, but it’s critical to bamboo classification.
Botanically, bamboo is a type of grass and belongs to the Poaceae family under the subfamily Bambusoideae. Normally, the next classification would be genus, followed by species. But many bamboo botanists further divide Bambusoideae into three different tribes: Arundinarieae, Bambuseae, and Olyreae. The bamboos found in each tribe not only share anatomical characteristics, but also generally prefer the same climates. We take a closer look at those climates below.
Temperate climates are typically along the Earth’s middle latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere as well as the Southern Hemisphere. They experience four distinct seasons with a wide temperature range throughout the year. Temperate climates generally experience temperature averages no colder than 26.6 °F (−3 °C) and no warmer than 64.4 °F (18 °C).
There are a number of bamboos that grow natively in temperate climates, and they mostly belong to the tribe Arundinarieae. Within the Arundinarieae tribe, there are 31 genera of bamboo and over 500 species, most of which are running types. They grow in environments where temperatures are neither too hot and humid nor too cold and shady.
A great example of a temperate bamboo genus is Phyllostachys, a running bamboo genus native to Asia with 63 different species. These types of bamboo are best suited for North America, some areas within Europe, and anywhere that may experience cooler environmental conditions. Running bamboo has an interesting root system that expands by growing an underground stem (also called rhizome) from which new shoots/new culms grow. A running bamboo is often seen as an invasive plant and requires a root barrier to keep the bamboo rhizomes in a certain area.
Many of the world’s bamboo species can be found in tropical climates near the earth’s equator. Tropical climates are defined by annual average temperature between 25 and 28°C, with no distinct seasons. Instead, tropical climates experience a wet season and a dry season (think monsoon season in Southeast Asia).
Most of the bamboo species found in tropical climates belong to the Bambuseae tribe. They include some of the world’s largest species, both in terms of diameter and height.
Because tropical bamboos prefer humid, warm environments with no chance of freezing, you’ll have a hard time growing them in much of the U.S. However, they may do well in areas of the Southern United States such as Florida.
Many bamboos grow in climates that are considered subtropical. While geographically part of the temperate climates north and south of the tropics, the subtropics are warmer and have milder winters than temperate zones. There are two kinds of subtropical climates: humid subtropical and dry summer. Dry summer subtropics are sometimes also referred to as a “Mediterranean climate.”
Bamboos that grow in subtropical climates mostly belong to the tribe Olyreae. There are 23 genera and 145 species of bamboo within this tribe, many of which can be found in Mexico, Southern Brazil, and Northern Argentina. Bamboos of the Olyreae tribe are a good option for many areas in the southern half of the U.S.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules. Not all bamboo species in a particular tribe grow in the same climate, and vice versa. There are some species of bamboo found in the tropics that grow at high elevations and are tolerant of cold, while there are temperate bamboos that can’t withstand cold winters.
Where in the world does bamboo grow?
You now know that bamboo can grow in all kinds of climates, from the tropics to the high mountains. While understanding the climates can give you an idea of where bamboo grows, it’s still too broad. To give you a better picture, we’ll take a closer look at the 5 continents where bamboo species are native plants.
Bamboo in Asia
Asia is home to a large portion of the bamboo population, with over 75 genera of bamboo native to Asia alone. For some perspective, some genera have up to 155 species!
China has the greatest diversity of bamboo species of all countries, with over 500 native bamboo species. In all, Asia has the environmental conditions for both tropical bamboo species and more temperate species. Bambusa, which is often considered the pinnacle bamboo genus, is native to Asia and has over 150 known species that range widely in terms of their use and appearance.
Asia is home to more native bamboo species than any other continent on the planet. Bamboo is so prolific there that it has become integral to culture, business, and even daily life. Whether bamboo shoots are used in cooking or bamboo poles are used as a building material and musical instruments, the use of bamboo is versatile.
Bamboo in South America
South America is another continent with an abundance of native bamboo species, many of which people are not often aware of! South America is home to the second-most diverse range of bamboo on the planet, after Asia.
Chusquea bamboo is one particular genus native to Chile, hence it’s often nicknamed Chilean bamboo. This genus has approximately 200 individual species of bamboo, making it a staple among South American bamboo landscapes. The Chusquea genus tends to be smaller than the timber-like bamboo, with many dwarf species with culms the width of a pencil. However, some larger Chusquea species can reach 40 feet tall or higher in the right conditions.
Guadua is another prominent bamboo genus in South America, with Guadua angustifolia as one of its most famous species. Guadua angustifolia grows natively at high elevations in Colombia and requires plenty of rain and sunshine. Due to its proximity to the equator, this unique bamboo species gets to experience equal amounts of daylight and darkness all year long. It can grow up to 100 feet tall (30m) and 5 inches (12cm) in diameter.
You might find some of the more rare herbaceous bamboo species growing in tropical Amazon forests in South America. However, if you were to stumble upon one growing natively, you might not even recognize it as bamboo since it doesn’t have those tall, thick culms.
Bamboo in Africa
Believe it or not, Africa is home to the third-most native species of bamboo, including tropical and temperate bamboo species. The known species in Africa are almost exclusively clumping bamboo species. As the name suggests, clumping bamboo grows in clusters, whereas running bamboo produces a network of underground rhizomes that can spread quickly and become invasive.
Beyond the species native to Africa, there are many more species that have been brought in and cultivated by humans since many countries in Africa have ideal growing conditions for both tropical and temperate bamboo species.
Interestingly, some species growing seemingly natively on this continent pose a bit of a question mark as to whether they are truly native. For example, it has been debated whether Bambusa vulgaris, also known as Common Bamboo, is native to Africa. While this particular species is very prominent in many regions, some suspect botanists and explorers brought it over, and its true origins are in Southern China.
Bamboo in North America
While only two bamboo genera are native to North America, many species are imported and cultivated in this part of the world. Arundinaria is the only known genus of bamboo native to the United States, commonly found growing in Florida. However, they are also found in other Southern regions like Texas, Georgia, and the southern areas of North Carolina.
While bamboo may not grow natively in all parts of North America, many ornamental bamboo species have become very popular additions to home gardens. Thanks to the temperate climate, there are numerous cultivars that will thrive in the United States.
While Canada has no native bamboo species, Mexico is home to approximately 56 native bamboo species. Some genera found there include Rhipidocladum, Chusquea, Cryptochloa, Otatea, Olmeca, and Guadua. These more tropical species can thrive in this southern part of North America thanks to the warmer climate and higher humidity.
Bamboo in Australia/Oceania
You may be surprised to learn that bamboo grows natively in Oceania, particularly in Australia. Australia has three native bamboo species: Bambusa arnhemica, Mullerochloa moreheadiana, and Neololeba atra. These species are typically found in the more Northern areas of Australia since it has a more tropical climate with much more rainfall.
The Bambusa genus is quite large, consisting of 150 species, but only one native to Australia, Bambusa arnhemica. Found in the tropical woodlands of Northern Australia in Arnhem Land, this bamboo species is very thorny and unattractive, which makes it unpopular for ornamental gardening. However, it is highly useful for crafting and construction among Indigenous communities. The Aboriginal people even use this species of bamboo to craft didgeridoos, their traditional instrument.
In contrast, the Mullerochloa moreheadiana, a rare bamboo species only found in northern Queensland, has more ornamental value. It grows 30 feet high (9m), but the culms are quite thin, only 1.5 inches (3cm) in diameter. It bears no branches, but the leaves themselves are large, beautiful and abundant, giving it an ornate appearance. This clumping bamboo prefers to live in wet, swampy terrain.
Lastly, the Neololeba atra bamboo species is quite interesting since there are only four other species within the genus, most of which are native to New Guinea and the Philippines. This bamboo grows in lowland and upland areas in northern Queensland and is famous for its beautiful, dark culms. It is a loose, clumping bamboo species that is approximately 2 inches (5 cm) thick and originates in the Iron Range regions of Australia.
Can bamboo grow on the other two continents?
Now that we have explored the continents where bamboo grows naturally, what about the other two? Can bamboo grow in Europe or Antarctica?
Bamboo in Antarctica
Antarctica is the only continent that is truly uninhabitable for bamboo due to the extreme cold temperatures. There is evidence that suggests that during the Mesozoic times, which was between 252 million and 66 million years ago, Antarctica was covered in forest, so while in our lifetime, there haven’t been any native bamboo species growing there, it would be interesting to explore whether bamboo species have grown there previously.
Bamboo in Europe
Even though Europe is one of the only two continents that does not have native bamboo species, you will still find plenty of cultivars in Europe.
Europe is one of the largest importers of bamboo products, and you will find cultivars growing in several locations throughout this area. France, Italy, Portugal, and Scotland are just some countries where bamboo has been cultivated and enjoyed. One particular farm in Scotland has carefully curated 50 bamboo species and will deliver them across the UK.
Can bamboo grow at different elevations?
Bamboo plants can grow at various elevations, from sea level to the high mountains. However, it depends on the species of bamboo in question. For example, Fargesia macclureana has been found growing as high as 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) above sea level.
The Himalayacalamus genus and other species of Fargesia are native to the lower elevations of the Himalayas. Both genera have many cold-hardy species that thrive in these conditions. Chusquea andina is another excellent example of a bamboo species tolerant of higher elevations and is believed to be one of the hardiest and most cold-tolerant bamboo species.
On the other hand, the more herbaceous bamboo species within the Olyreae tribe are rarely found above 3,280 feet (1,000 meters). Higher elevations tend to be colder than areas closer to sea level, so bamboo species native to those areas must be very cold hardy.
How to choose the best bamboo for your climate
If you plan to grow bamboo in your garden, in a small area in your landscape, or inside your house, ensuring that the species in question will thrive greatly depends on how closely your environment replicates its natural climate. Fortunately, since there are so many different bamboo species growing in different places around the world, you can definitely find one that will thrive in your area.
If you’re not sure where to start, check which USDA plant hardiness zone you live in and how that compares to the environmental conditions where particular bamboo species thrive naturally.
In addition, make sure you understand whether the type of bamboo you’d like to plant is running or clumping. Running bamboo can become invasive due to the growth rate of the bamboo roots, so you should set up root barriers if you do not want it to take over your (and your neighbors’) space. While there are some exceptions, many tropical bamboo species tend to be the clumping type, while the more temperate bamboo species are the running type.
Another helpful tip is to check what your desired bamboo needs. Temperature, sunlight, humidity, and rainfall are factors you should consider since these elements are beyond our control as gardeners, and some species need more sunlight while others prefer partial shade.
While you may be able to grow smaller species in a greenhouse or in containers that can be moved indoors, taller bamboo species will need to be planted in the ground. Keep in mind that container bamboo doesn’t reach its full height.