Red Panda eating bamboo.
Some Threatened


Bambusoideae subfamily
  • Division: Magnoliophyta
  • Class: Lilospida Monocots
  • Order: Cyperales
  • Family: Poaceae
  • Subfamily: Bambusoideae
  • Genus: 91 genera
  • Species: more than 1,400


Bamboo is a tree-like (arborescent) grass. Like trees, bamboo grows tall and has a hard covering around the main supporting structure. But that's where the similarities end!

A tree sapling's thin trunk becomes wider as the tree grows in height and increases in girth from the inner layer, called the cambium, under the bark. On the other hand, a bamboo stalk, called a culm, maintains the same diameter from sprout to full-grown cane.

Bamboo is native to the tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions of the world. It thrives from sea level up to snow-capped mountains at 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) in elevation. Bamboo grows with as little as 30 inches (76.2 centimeters) to as much as 250 inches (635 centimeters) of annual rainfall.


Bamboo falls into one of two groups, depending on what goes on beneath the surface. Clumping bamboo has short, thick rhizomes that spread relatively slowly in fairly small areas. The rhizomes of running bamboo have a markedly horizontal growth habit, which leads them to spread rapidly. Clumping bamboos are from tropical areas, while running bamboos tend to be from more temperate regions.

New stalks, covered by a papery sheath bearing bristly hairs, sprout from the plant's rhizomes each spring. Each stalk, called a culm, maintains the same diameter from sprout to full-grown cane. The width of the bamboo shoot portends its ultimate height: the thicker it is, the taller it will be when it reaches its full size, about 90 days after breaking the soil surface. Once the stalk's maximum height is reached, the rest of the plant's energy goes into leaf development and extending the root stock.

Eventually, at a point in time that varies by species, the bamboo plant develops grass-type flowers. When pollinated, the blossoms produce seeds, and the entire plant, which at this point has spread over a wide area, dies. An unknown mechanism causes each species to flower globally and die back at the same time. Some types flower every 50 years; others don't flower for more than 100 years.


Most bamboo varieties do best with at least five hours or more of direct sunlight daily. New shoots emerge from April to June each year. Once they reach their full height and leaf out, the plant's energy goes into developing rhizomes underground, which will produce new sprouts the following year. Bamboo is a forest-type plant that thrives when well mulched. After the initial planting, however, you won't need to add mulch—just don't rake up the leaves the plant drops.


The various bamboos provide shade, beauty, and partitions, but this fast-growing plant provides much more than landscaping solutions (and panda browse at the Zoo). Bamboo has supplied timber for shelter for millions of people, not to mention an endless list of other helpful applications: material for suspension bridges, skyscraper scaffolding, airplane skins, musical instruments, furniture, paper, food, medicine, fuel, and even the filament for Thomas Edison's first successful light bulb!


The San Diego Zoo uses bamboo to feed the giant pandas, red pandas, and takins. We have a browse program dedicated to growing the types of bamboo the animals eat most of. Yet, our dedication to this plant group goes beyond that, and we are proud of our accredited collection, made up of 67 taxa of bamboo. Included are some rare specimens that are used for research. Bamboo scientists come from all over the world to see our accredited collection.


Bambusa vulgaris 'Vittata'

With its vibrant colors, this large, tropical bamboo is especially prized as an ornamental in its native China.


Bambusa ventricosa

Swollen nodes give this bamboo its common name. Native to Vietnam and southern China.


Bambusa dolichomerithalla

A clumping bamboo native to Taiwan.


Bambusa beecheyana

Culms reach 50 feet (15.2 meters) high. It has a lower water requirement than most other types of bamboo.


Bambusa multiplex 'Silverstripe'

The name 'Silverstripe' refers to the silver-white striping on some leaves.


Borinda fungosa

A weeping-form bamboo, it reaches heights of about 20 feet (6 meters). Native to Yunnan, China, it is found at 6,000 to 9,000 feet (1,829 to 2743 meters) in elevation.


Dendrocalamus asper

Mature culms, which can reach 100 feet (30.5 meters) tall and 8 to 10 inches (20.3 to 25.4 centimeters) in diameter, are used to make cooking vessels, musical instruments, and other useful items. This tropical/subtropical bamboo is native to Southeast Asia and India.


Fargesia murieliae

This bamboo is important panda food in China. It is native to damp, cool forests from East Asia to Central China and grows at higher elevations, up to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters).


Indocalamus tessellatus

The largest leaves of any bamboo: 25 inches (63.5 centimeters) long and 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) wide! However, this running bamboo's culms only reach 4 to 7 feet (1.2 to 2.1 meters) tall. It is native to banks along the Yangtze River in China.


Phyllostachys bambusoides 'Castillon'

Native throughout Asia, this is one of the least invasive types of running bamboo.


Phylostachys nigra

Native to eastern and central Asia, this type of bamboo grows in many forms and is popular in gardens or as a potted plant.


Pseudosasa japonica

Japanese Samurai used this bamboo for arrows due to its stiffness and straightness. In the 1860s, arrow bamboo became one of the first ornamental Asian bamboos grown in the United States.

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Rhizome: the underground stem from which roots sprout

Culm: the central stem

Node: the part of the stem from which branches and leaves emerge.


The culms of a bamboo clump are interconnected by the branched network of rhizomes. Each individual culm is dependent upon the others for sustenance.


The culms of most types of bamboo are hollow. Yet because of their high silica content, they are surprisingly strong.


Thomas Edison used pieces of culm from black bamboo Phyllostachys nigra as filaments in early light bulbs.


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