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West Hawaii plant sale featuring rare bamboos

Updated: 
October 23, 2017 - 9:44pm

Mark your calendar for 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday at Old Kona Airport Park’s Makaeo Events Pavilion to catch a great plant sale of bamboos, fruit trees, succulents, anthuriums, orchids and other air plants. For folks in East Hawaii, it is an opportunity to find rare plants and get your wholesale grocery shopping done, as well.

According to Peter Berg and Susan Ruskin, there will be 25 noninvasive bamboo species available. These are suitable for privacy hedges, gorgeous landscape statements, edible shoots, windbreaks and those used for construction.

Hawaii’s varied climates and cultural makeup are ideal for bamboo, but until the 1980s, there was no serious effort to introduce the valuable elite bamboos of Asia and the Americas. Thanks to the Hawaii Chapter of the American Bamboo Society and Quindembo Nursery, we now have more than 100 species available.

This month, Puerto Rico was to host the annual meeting of the American Bamboo Society, but Hurricane Maria squelched the event and bamboo planting projects associated with it. We are just now getting word from bamboo growers in Mayaguez that bamboo plantings established several years ago fared better than most tree crops in the region. Just one month after the storm, bamboo groves are showing signs of growth after being stripped of vegetation. The original bamboo project started at the Federal Experiment Station at Mayaguez in the late 1930s and was spearheaded by Floyd Alonzo McClure. Valuable bamboos species from Asia were established, tested and distributed throughout the Caribbean and Central America during the next few decades. Today, scores of species are utilized, but bamboo is not new to indigenous American Cultures. Guadua species native to the Americas were used as early as 9,500 years ago.

Asia is the ancestral home of many kamaaina, both people and plants. When it comes to plants, one of the most valuable of these is bamboo. Although there are many species found in central and South America, tropical and subtropical Asia has utilized bamboo for thousands of years. It is said bamboo and rice are the very foundation of these cultures. The Hawaiian ohe kahiko, may be found in many parts of Polynesia. The actual genus and species is not clear, with taxonomists and botanists not all agreeing. We do know it is a tropical clumper probably originating in Southeast Asia. It is likely Schizostachyum and has been called S. glaucifolium in Hawaii. We saw vast stands in the mountains of high islands like Raiatea in the Society Islands. Polynesians there still use it in crafts.

With large tracts of land now available for forestry, and our local interest in sustainable agriculture, bamboo may become one of our major resources. It has many uses, both commercial and ornamental.

Some folks only know bamboo from their experience with the rampant running species. Needless to say, these types are not for the small garden unless contained. However, they have been used very effectively to stabilize steep slopes that are prone to erosion. That is why we find large stands of Phyllostachys running bamboos on the steeps slopes above Waiohinu in Ka’u or at the back of Manoa Valley, Oahu, and on Maui. The intricate mat of roots and rhizomes hold soil and rocks in place and save roads, homes and streams from mud and rockslides. Bamboos are certainly a more attractive and environmentally sound approach to steep slope erosion control than concrete, wire or chain link screens. Erosion on East Hawaii gulch roads is a serious problem that could be addressed with certain bamboo species.

Bamboos are also excellent cattle feed and have a place in supplying nutritious greens at a low cost. Society members have been working on the potential of growing bamboos for multiple use sustainable agriculture incorporating the animal feed component, and it looks very encouraging. There are plans to work with University of Hawaii agronomists in the near future to expand this project by utilizing bamboo for windbreaks and feed.

Even though bamboos are excellent sources of edible shoots and construction material, most folks are interested in ornamental bamboos for their looks. Bamboos, of one type or another, are a natural for almost any tropical garden. In fact, many of the hundreds of types of bamboos do grow in the tropics, but some species grow as far north as New York or Seattle, and can be found growing 10,000 feet in the mountains of Asia, Central and South America. Bamboos vary from forest giants of 120 feet to dwarfs of 6 inches.

Many specimens of bamboo are suitable for ornamental purposes. The clump bamboos are suited for ornamental uses in their area of adaptation. They can be planted in groups for hedges, or singly for specimen plantings. They spread very slowly and are easy to keep within bounds. One of the best for sunny locations is the Mexican weeping bamboo. Others to consider are the Bambusa multiplex forms such as Alphonse Karr, Fern leaf, Silver Stripe and Feather bamboo. These delicate clump types range from 10-20 feet high. Other rare clumping types are beginning to show up in our nurseries like the Chusqueas and Drepanostachyums

For larger gardens, try Bambusa chungii (Tropical Blue Hedge) and Weaver’s bamboo. There are several other Bambusas also available These are all clumping types in the 20- to 40-foot-high range with fancy Latin names and multiple uses.

The giant tropical clumping bamboos need plenty of room since they soar 50-100 feet under ideal conditions. This group includes the larger Bambusa, Dendrocalamus, Guadua, and Gigantochloa species that may have culms 6 to 12 inches in diameter. They are grown for edible shoots, construction material, windbreaks and furniture. My favorites are the black culmed types like Hitam, Lako and Gigantochloa atroviolecea. Another favorite spectacular giant is Dendrocalamus brandisii.

Miniature bamboos well suited to container growing are the Sasa species and Shibatea kumasasa. These and other running bamboos like black bamboo can be kept small or bonsai when contained. The running bamboos are more difficult to keep in bounds than the clump bamboo. However, many are desirable as ornamental plants because of diversity in their habit of growth, appearance, and size.

Bamboo does best in moist, well-drained soil with some organic matter. Apply complete fertilizer such as organic 8-8-8 or manures four to six times a year. Mulch the soil around the planting. Mulches add organic matter to the soil, help to restrict the growth of weeds and conserve soil moisture. Dead leaves or dry grass clippings can be used for mulch. Apply a layer of mulching material at least 3 inches deep.

If you are interested in bamboo culture for economic and agricultural uses, contact your University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Extension Office for UH Extension circular “Bamboo for Forest and Garden.”

For an update on what is happening with the Puerto Rico bamboo situation, do a search for Sadhu Govardhan Eco Project in Mayaguez.

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